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iPhone OS update sticks customers with premium call bills

Hard knock for Bubblewrap, Admob tie-up

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A combination of failures has resulted in some iPhone users incurring premium-rate call charges, for calls they didn't know they were making.

Punters who downloaded the free, advertising supported Bubblewrap game from Orsome NZ have spotted the application calling premium-rate numbers, and incurring premium-rate charges, without warning. This was due to a combination of factors that conspired to create a nice little earner for O2, and demonstrate how much iPhone users are having to rely on trust these days.

Users of the free version of Orsome's Bubblewrap application started noticing unexplained calls to premium-rate numbers in December, though they were not frequent and hard to correlate with game sessions. Some posted complaints to the application store, some to the Who Called Me web site, but incidence was low and as the developer is based in New Zealand, he remained blissfully unaware until we got in touch.

Peter Watling, author of Bubblewrap, told us the blame must lie with the embedded advert engine from AdMob. Companies like AdMob provide a small chunk of code that developers can drop into their application. The code collects advertisements from the AdMob server and displays them to the user, with the developer then getting a cut of the advertising revenue. Most adverts are passive affairs, but some encourage the user to interact by tapping on the ad to jump to a website or place a call. Such actions should be preceded a warning dialogue, which is where things went wrong as AdMob explained in their explanation to the good Mr. Watling:

"Recently, we discovered that Apple changed the behavior in their OS where clicking on a link or ad that would launch a call did NOT generate a confirmation box and immediately started dialling. We weren’t prepared for this change."

It would appear, therefore, that the users complaining had accidentally tapped on an advert linked to a premium-rate number which had connected without warning because of Apple's undocumented changes the the iPhone. Except that AdMob isn't supposed to accept adverts linked to premium-rate numbers, so these adverts apparently slipped through that net too.

"We don’t run ads for premium numbers," the company explained in a mail to Orsome NZ, going on to qualify that by suggesting "international premium numbers are harder to detect since they may not be 1800 numbers."

AdMob claims they've fixed the no-warning bug, so users shouldn't incur any more phantom call charges, but the whole situation demonstrates just how complicated the mobile ecosystem now is. It's interesting to speculate who would be prepared to take responsibility if the problem had been more widespread, and how long we'll have to wait before we have an example that is. ®

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