Dec 19, 2021

Scam alert: Is that Santa app safe? Better check it twice

Posted Dec 19, 2021 11:09 AM
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Image courtesy of Pixabay


Apple's App Store and Google Play list dozen of holiday-themed apps: children can video chat live with Santa himself, light the menorah, watch Santa feed live reindeer, track his sleigh on Christmas Eve, or relay their Christmas wish-lists. With COVID-19 continuing to affect kids' access to in-person activities like visits with Santa, apps may continue to play a large role in the holiday season. Before allowing a child to download any app, be sure what data it's collecting and set permission requirements. 

BBB National Programs’ Cameryn Gonnella, Compliance Manager for the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) recommended these tips to keep in mind this holiday season. 

Know your Privacy Rights 

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) gives parents control over who collects information from and about their children. COPPA applies to all mobile apps and websites directed to kids, even those based at the North Pole. COPPA, updated in 2013, was designed to ensure that parents can consent to the collection of personal information from children under the age of 13. Personal information includes names and addresses, email addresses, birth dates, photographs, or geolocation information.

Tips for Parents

Before downloading any app, parents should:

  1. Look for a privacy policy and give it a skim: Responsible apps directed to children provide a description of the service’s information collection practices before a parent or child downloads an app to their device. COPPA requires, at the very least, that the privacy policy be on the homepage of the app when you open it. Many apps also have a link in the app store platforms. If you can’t find a privacy policy, that’s a red flag. It’s very likely that they’re on Santa’s naughty list. A privacy policy should include: A list of who is collecting personal information; what information the device collects and how it’s used; how personal information is stored; who has access to data; a list of your parental rights, and consumer opt-out tools

  2. Learn what personal information is collected: Online services directed to children may not collect, maintain or share a photograph, video or voice recordings or even a device identifier of a child from children without first getting consent from a parent or guardian. The law also requires that apps get parental consent before allowing kids to disclose personal information publicly. Before your child downloads an app, check out what information it might collect using helpful tools like Apple's new Privacy Details section in the App Store.

  3. Set permission requirements: Many apps that are listed as free in the app store have in-app purchases that might be accessed by children after a parent has allowed them to download the app.  Ensure that your child’s device is set to require a password for each download.

  4. Be wary of free apps: Most free apps contain more advertising than apps that require even a nominal fee. Free apps, even those labeled as educational, may have deceptive and disruptive advertising practices—some even advertise inappropriate content. Ads may pop up extremely frequently and kids are often required to view these ads in full to continue in the game. Ads may also trick kids into clicking by placing them behind enticing items like coins or adorable creatures. If an app is meant for both children and parents to use, then not all of its advertisements may be appropriate for younger children; it may contain ads for games or films intended for older audiences. Finally, even a free app that does not display advertising might have third-party code collecting data for later  future ad targeting. To avoid surreptitious ad targeting, make sure to adjust your iOS or Android device settings.

  5. Think before you download: Sometimes, free apps might contain a form of malicious code called malware. To avoid downloading an app that might cause problems with your phone, make sure it’s page in the app store has a privacy policy link, contact information, and address information for the app publisher. Use common sense when looking at the app to see if it appears reputable. Crude designs or imitations of commonly known cartoon or fictional characters might be a red flag.

  6. Check out reviews: Services such as Common Sense Media tell whether the app’s content is appropriate for your child.

CARU asks parents who come across an app or other online service that they think violates COPPA to file an anonymous consumer complaint on CARU's website.

For more information about CARU and keeping children safe online, please visit the BBB National Programs’ website.