By Cecilia Kang

Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate potentially deceptive practices on Apple's iPhone that allow makers of free children's games to charge users.

As reported in The Washington Post, parents have complained that those free applications are geared toward children but can charge up to $99 for items such as barrels of Smurfberries on the Smurfs' Village game by Capcom Interactive. In the case of one Rockville family, more than $1,400 was charged from Capcom Interactive and Apple, which gets a 30 percent cut of the revenue.

The purchases cannot be made without a password. But parents and public interest groups say that safeguards are not strong enough and that steep charges for imaginary items should not be included in children's games.

"Companies shouldn't be able to use smurfs and snowflakes and zoos as online ATMs, pulling money from the pockets of unsuspecting parents," Markey said. "The use of mobile apps will continue to escalate, which is why it is critical that more is done now to examine these practices. I will continue to closely monitor this issue and look forward to the FTC's response."

The FTC said it received the letters, but it declined to comment. Apple was sent a copy of Markey's letter but declined to comment.

Specifically, Markey, a veteran member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said "in-app" purchases - the ability to buy items when an application is launched - may be deceptive. When a parent downloads an application that is deemed suitable for young children, he said, they do not expect their children to be confronted with virtual store shelves of $19 buckets of snowflakes. He said families may not clearly understand this as they download applications such as San Francisco-based Pocket Gems' popular Tap Zoo game, one of the highest-grossing applications in the iTunes store, he said.

Children's advocates say the problem with such games is that they blur the line between fantasy and reality. Children can easily figure out iTunes store passwords. Once a password is used, the store allows a 15-minute window of unlimited downloads.

Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University and author of "Generation Digital," has pushed for reforms to the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. She wants the legislation to apply to mobile phones, on which children are spending more of their time.

"The bigger question of business marketing practices moving forward is that policy doesn't have time to stay up, so we need to ensure there are safeguards across all platforms so kids are not exploited," she said.

Klobuchar said users need to be more clearly warned of purchases so they are not confused or do not end up suffering from "bill shock."

Pocket Gems and Capcom Interactive have added warnings to the iTunes store and on the application of real charges. But not all packaging of software geared toward children is clear.

"I urge the FTC to examine this practice and to consider rules that would add transparency and clarity to the in-app market," Klobuchar said.