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Ohen my 87-year-old mother, Patricia Collinson, received an Alexa speaker from my sister, she was thrilled to find she could ask her to say Hail Marys. Every morning for a week, the devout Catholic asked Alexa to recite the prayer.

What she was less thrilled to learn was that she had unwittingly ordered a premium membership payable through Amazon from a private company called Catholic Prayers.

Patricia, a retired district nurse in Hastings, doesn’t own a computer and doesn’t know how to use it. She had signed up by voice command, without being presented with the kind of plan or terms and conditions that are now standard when you pay for things online.

His experience sheds light on a relatively new phenomenon, the “skills” from Alexa. Launched in the UK in 2016, this is the apps version of the voice service. There are 45,000 in the UK, ranging from security offerings (like allowing your Alexa to hear breaking glass or a smoke detector) to recipe ideas and even services “sending a hug”.

While generally free to verbally order via Amazon’s Alexa, many also encourage in-app purchases – which can be done simply by saying “yes”.

Patricia says that at no time did she realize that she was making a purchase or subscribing to a subscription.

“I got into the habit almost every morning of walking down the stairs, sitting in my chair and saying, ‘Hi, Alexa. Can you say the Hail Mary please,” she said.

“He never asked for money. He never said he was charging me. It was completely new to me.

The Alexa was created by my sister, Catherine, and is attached to her Amazon account. She spotted an unusual email from the retailer, which read: “Order Confirmation. Your payment has been processed and your subscription period has begun.

Luckily the subscription was just £1.99 a month and there was a seven day free cancellation period, which Catherine nabbed just in time. But my sister is still puzzled as to how my mom could have made the contract, and how, if she hadn’t noticed the email, my mom would pay now.

“Thank god she didn’t ask Alexa to say the rosary”my sister joked, referring to the prayer set that includes 53 Hail Marys.

But there is a serious point here. Digital voice assistants, such as those from Amazon and Google, are now present in millions of UK homes. Vulnerable consumers, including children and non-computer savvy, may inadvertently sign up for premium subscriptions simply by saying yes.

Alexa, why did you charge me £2 to say Hail Mary?  |  consumer affairs
Patricia Collinson: ‘He never said he was charging me. It was completely new to me. Photography: Patrick Collinson

In a statement, Amazon said: “For purchases by voice, customers can purchase content by saying yes to a product offer message, generated when a customer requests the product directly or when the customer responds positively to a proactive suggestion in the applicable skill.”

He added: “Following a voice purchase, customers receive an order confirmation email from Amazon. With the Catholic Prayers skill, customers are offered a seven-day free trial, after which they are asked if they wish to continue their subscription for a fee.

Luckily my sister spotted the email from Amazon, otherwise the payment would be made monthly.

Guardian Money contacted the developer behind Catholic Prayers, Nicholas Azzarello, who lives in the United States. He said he was very sorry for the trouble he had caused my mother, adding that ‘”she may not have realized what Alexa was asking her when she said yes”.

He added: “Maybe your mom said yes, and then Alexa told her how much the premium subscription would cost one month after the seven-day trial. Then Alexa asked if she was sure she wanted to sign up and your mom may have said yes to that as well, although she may not have quite understood what Alexa was talking about.

Azzarello said Catholic Prayers has around 10,000 monthly users, but is in no way affiliated with the Catholic Church itself.

Amazon said for skills aimed at children, approval was required for each voice purchase and parents could opt out of voice purchasing. “Developers are required to identify if their skill is intended for children when submitting the skill to Amazon”did he declare.

When Guardian Money asked Google Assistant for the Hail Mary, it was provided with no payment or attempted payment. We couldn’t find any premium service charging for similar content.

But for many Alexa developers, the skill service has earned them big bucks.

On its business pages, Amazon encourages software developers to “earn money with Alexa Developer Rewards”. It brags about how a developer in the United States made $25,000 in six months from “good night messages” on Alexa that he had produced just “for pleasure”.

How to Disable Voice Purchasing Through Alexa

There are several ways to prevent accidental voice purchases of skills, goods, or services through Alexa, all accessible through the Alexa app on your phone, iPhone, or Android tablet.

Alexa, why did you charge me £2 to say Hail Mary?  |  consumer affairsOpen the Alexa app and go to More > Settings > Account Settings > Voice Purchasing to see all available options. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Open the app and navigate to: More > Settings > Account Settings > Voice Purchases.

Here you’ll find the option to disable voice purchasing entirely or set a PIN that must be spoken to authorize transactions. You can also lock purchases on certain profiles only by recognizing a person’s voice tag, like yours, but not your children’s.

Additionally, voice buying in kids skills can be turned off entirely or set to “requires purchase approval”which sends an SMS and/or email to the registered account holder to log out. Sam Gibbs

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