When online game Roblox launched on Wall Street earlier this month with a market value of roughly $36 billion, you could say Jeanann Wallace was an unwitting contributor to the corporation’s bottom line.
Her 10-year-old daughter, Noemi, secretly dropped $860 of the teacher’s money on the video game platform during a four-hour spending spree.
“My PayPal account somehow got associated with her device,” Wallace told The Post of the incident last year. “Roblox makes it very easy for kids to rack up purchases without their parents’ knowledge or consent.”
The Queens resident is among an untold number of “accidental consumers” of the global gaming system. While technically free to play, users are encouraged to buy accessories for their avatars and change levels through a virtual currency called Robux that costs $10 for 800 points.
Roblox differs from a conventional video game as users can create their own games and receive a percentage of the profits from sales. Personal avatars are central to the experience because you can trick them out with add-ons such as weapons, helmets and cool items of clothing. One of the most popular games is called “Piggy,” in which players can pay to change so-called “skins” to look like warped characters from the British cartoon “Peppa Pig.”
“It can mount up to a lot of cash very quickly,” said Wallace, who tried in vain to repeatedly contest the charges Noemi accrued with Roblox, PayPal and iTunes.
As the pandemic continues and a generation of kids play unsupervised for long hours due to school closures, frazzled parents are finding themselves similarly out of pocket — and worried about the insidious real-world pressures behind the mass spending.
Fashion design director Sara Louise Petty told The Post her sons spent $1,250 on the platform without her knowledge. She got $600 back from Chase after contesting the charges on an initial series of purchases by her older boy, Riley, now 13.
“He was being bullied at middle school and was buying Robux to give to boys targeting him,” said Petty, from Larchmont, New York. “He was trying to buy their friendship.”
One aspect of Roblox is that players can converse with complete strangers — as well as with groups of friends — via chats within games. Although Roblox provides some monitoring of exchanges between users, trolls roam free — reportedly shaming kids into shelling out cash.
“It’s very easy for another gamer to bully another child as there’s not really any consequences to their actions [and] most likely you’re not going to get caught,” said New York City psychologist Kimberly Hershenson. “It’s [mostly] anonymous and you’re not going to get shut down. If you have a screen name, you can just change it.”
Children are especially vulnerable to being preyed upon by bullies who persuade them into “gifting” purchased Robux. Other times, they might buy Robux for their online “friends,” in order to keep in with them at school.
“Many of the younger ones don’t understand the value of money and are spending with abandon,” Hershenson said. She recently had to counsel a distraught client whose child had run up a $1,500 Roblox bill behind their back.
She explained it was a perfect storm of circumstances: Parents not monitoring their offspring’s gaming, the advance of financial technologies in which banking details are cached in phones and computers, and, yes, the limits COVID-19 has placed on socializing.
Wallace cringes when she recalls the Sunday afternoon last June when she spotted more than 50 unauthorized PayPal payments Noemi had made to Roblox. They were made during a marathon overnight gaming session with a good friend whom the tween couldn’t meet in person due to the pandemic. No bullying was involved.
“As lockdown progressed, I relaxed my stance on all-night video game sessions as I felt it was important for my daughter to maintain interactions with friends,” said the 50-something single mom. “I made a $5 Robux purchase for her and went through the steps of logging out of my PayPal.
“But the details must have been cached.”
She was furious with Noemi — who paid back around $150 of the cash from her allowance — but then became increasingly angry with Roblox.
“Roblox makes these kids very unaware that the things they are doing within the game are causing financial ruin to their family,” said Wallace. “Fortunately for me this didn’t impact my ability to pay my mortgage or provide necessities, but the almost $1,000 dollars was a bitter pill to swallow.”
A Roblox spokesperson told The Post: “Roblox strives to prevent children from making unauthorized purchases and have rigorous safety measures in place to make it harder, such as not storing full billing information, displaying clear warnings at the time of first purchase, and a permissive refund policy.”
The spokesperson also said the company “[encourages] parents to review their payment settings on third-party services, such as Google Play or iTunes, as they typically have an option to require a password for each purchase and prevent saving any information that could be reused for future purchases.”
Petty, a single mom, didn’t even bother to contest two subsequent amounts of $300 and $350 paid to Roblox by Riley and then her younger son, Miles, 7.
“I was too ashamed,” said the 47-year-old, whose work and income have been detrimentally affected by the pandemic. Both transactions were done under similar circumstances where bank details were accidentally cached on family electronics.
Mercifully, Riley has managed to rise above his bullies and now has a close group of real friends. But Petty is still worried about Miles’ use of Roblox, particularly because he has special needs.
“Roblox can be addictive to kids like him,” said Petty. “He has social anxiety so gaming is an escape.
“It’s become detrimental to our family life … I honestly wish Roblox didn’t exist.”