How To Avoid Accidental Android Market and In-App Purchases

By Ryan Whitwam

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We have, in the past, complained that Google makes it a hassle to buy apps. Well, they must read Tested (or just listen to their users) because over time, the Market has gotten a lot more user-friendly. One of the most useful features Google has rolled out to the Market as of late is in-app purchases. When you add this to the already exploding paid app ecosystem, it gets very easy to buy things. But, maybe too easy? We’re hearing more and more stories of people accidentally buying in-app goods.

Another incident might begin when a user lets their young ones play with the phone only to learn they bought $50 worth of in-game currency. Or maybe you just let an acquaintance borrow your phone? Not everyone is familiar with the concept that phones do ask for real money. We’re going to go over the best ways to guard against that kind of occurrence. Stick with us to protect your wallet.

Block the Market

This is our favorite method, but it takes some set up and isn’t free. Whether you are buying a full app, or just making an in-app purchase, the Android Market app itself will be invoked. Now, if you have a way to interdict the Market app itself, no one but authorized parties can spend money on your phone.

To handle this, we like to go back to an old favorite app called Seal. This is a handy application that you can pick up for about $3 in the Android Market. A free version will work for this as well, but is very limited in its additional functionality. Seal lets you choose applications to lock-down with either a passcode, or a pattern lock.

When the locked app opens (in this case it would be the Market), Seal gets involved first and asks for the code. If the user cannot provide it, the app will not be launched. You can configure the number of guesses allowed. If that number is exceeded, Seal will lock itself down until such time as you enter your master password or your chosen timeout period has passed.

Since the Market is actually being called up for in-app content, Seal will work exactly the same for that situation. No one will be able to pop open an app and buy things without your say-so.

Another app we’re looked at is called Advanced App Locker. This app works much the same as Seal, but tries to fool the other party. It is very clear what Seal is, but Advanced App Locker can make itself look like a force close dialog, or just a blank screen. If an unscrupulous party is trying to spend your money, they will be stopped dead when everything looks broken. Just tap the corner of the screen a predetermined number of times to open the app.

Advanced App Locker also has the more obvious passcode and pattern options available in Seal. The big difference with Advanced App Locker is that it does not detect when the Market launches for an in-app purchase. It will only protect from paid app buying in the Market. Advanced App Locker goes for about $2, and there is a free version that is missing several options like custom text lock screens.

As for which you should use, that depends on your personal preference. Seal has a lot of extras like saved app groups you can toggle on and off manually, or with Locale/Tasker. It also hides itself from the recent apps list. Advanced App Locker has that neat fake error trick, and the blank screen ruse. If you don’t have any apps with in-app purchasing, this option will be fine. Both of these apps work well and are stable.

Hide the Market

One of your courses of action might be to just obfuscate the Android Market a bit. This will keep many people from buying a paid app. This is fine if you don’t want to get into the full scale app lock-down from above. Although, this won’t help you avoid in-app purchases, or a determined miscreant looking to buy apps on your dime. But it might be right for you.

There are plenty of perfectly good reasons to run a home screen replacement, but one feature that almost all of them have it the ability to hide apps from the app drawer. So, remove the Market link from your home screen, pick up LauncherPro, ADW EX, or GO Launcher and head to the settings. It should be fairly easy to find the necessary options.

When you’ve hidden the Market app, it will not show up in the list at all. This will be enough to stymie most people and keep them from poking around in the Market with your credit card. You can still access it by hitting the search button on the home screen and typing ‘Market’. Again, this is something most people won’t know to do.

Nuke Google Checkout

Google’s payment system is not very widely used. So if you don’t buy a lot of apps, you probably don’t use Google Checkout much. This is probably the most radical option you have, but consider removing your payment info from Google Checkout.

If you’re picking up a new phone, go ahead and buy the paid apps you want in one big binge. Then head over to the Google Checkout site and log into your account. Over on the left hand side of the screen will be a link called ‘Edit payment methods’. Follow that link and you will get a list of your accounts. Just remove your credit card and carrier information (if applicable) with the delete button.

The Android Market will pull your payment information directly from Google Checkout. So if nothing is there, no one (yourself included) can buy apps. As we said, this is not an ideal solution for people that buy paid apps frequently. But we know that many of you don’t. Consider how often you need to make a purchase, and decide if your payment info needs to live on your phone full time. You can always enter it later.

The method that we use on a regular basis is individual app lock-down with Seal. Not only is it effective, but makes it easy to automate locking with Situations. Both Seal and Advanced App Locker can block paid apps by locking down the Market, but only Seal can stop in-app purchases as well. Remember, in-app purchases cannot be refunded unless you complain to the developer. Have you ever ended up with a bill for Android content you didn’t intend to buy?