Understand and avoid "dark pattern" sales tactics: Internet Scambusters #977
You may not know it, but you likely encounter so-called "dark patterns" nearly every time you go online.
They're a whole stable-full of tricks that online sellers and others use to try to get you to spend more money or to create a maze of pages and obstacles when you want to cancel.
In this week's issue, we explain how dark patterns work so you know what to look out for to avoid falling into the trap.
Let's get started…
"Dark Patterns": How Websites Trick You Into Spending
Have you ever kicked yourself after feeling tricked into spending more than you intended or buying something you probably didn't need?
There's a name for that: dark pattern marketing. It isn't always a scam, but you still feel you've been hoodwinked, often some years after you paid out.
Watchdog organization Consumer Reports describes the tactic as a website or app "crafted to trick consumers into taking actions that are not in their best interests.
"Examples include links and menus that encourage users to spend more money or share more data, or that discourage them from opting out of user agreements or from deleting accounts."
You'll recognize it in action if you've ever tried to cancel a service and found it next to impossible or you're passed to a smooth talker who tries to persuade you not to go, or if you buy an expensive extended warranty that you never use.
Other examples include:
- Bundling together of items, some of which you don't need or want but none of which are available separately. TV channels for instance.
- Automatic continuing and charging for services after the end of a free trial.
- "Family" subscriptions that allow members to make their own purchases without the account owner knowing or being able to cancel.
- Putting the small print in an online contract in a barely legible, light-colored font that you probably won't notice. For instance, wording that allows a website to sell your data.
- Persuading software users to pay to update or upgrade their programs and apps by pretending they're essential and that the new version will better serve or protect them.
- Promoting higher-ticket items while making it difficult for online shoppers to compare prices.
- Keeping users on a website by telling them that if they navigate away, they'll lose a bargain.
- Using countdown clocks to make purchase decisions seem urgent.
You may not have heard of dark patterns before but they're so common that there are now consumer websites (darkpatternstipline.org) and Twitter feeds (@darkpatterns) that encourage victims to report on their experience.
A 2019 study by Princeton and Chicago Universities found that 10% of all websites use some form of dark pattern techniques. And at least one state -- California -- has enacted legislation to stop firms from using these tactics to fool website users into allowing their data to be sold.
This reflects growing concerns about how dark patterns are being used to erode online privacy. For instance, some websites use default settings under which a user's data will be shared unless they opt out, which, in turn, is often unclear, difficult, and complicated.
Dark patterns are "manipulating users into making decisions they wouldn't otherwise make and buying stuff they don't need," Gunes Acar, a former researcher at Princeton, told website Business Insider.
"Showing a timer and saying you only have 5 minutes left - there's a sense of urgency that's questionable at best."
Earlier this year, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) told attendees at a dark pattern webinar that it had recently sued the companies for forcing people to navigate a maze of screens and choices to cancel negative option subscription plans, using inconspicuous dropdown links and auto scroll features to hide terms and conditions and sneaking additional unwanted products into people's carts without their knowledge or consent.
"Whether it is expanded data collection or specific behavioral manipulation, the motivation behind the use of dark patterns is often the same -- enhance a company's bottom line and market position in ways that may be harmful to its users or contrary to their intent," FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter declared.
Virginia Senator Mark Warner described the use of dark patterns as abusive "where consumers, basically, looking for information or looking for an answer, are basically greeted with screenshot after screenshot, where virtually the only option is to agree. "You have to go through a series of hoops and hurdles to ever kind of get out of that page, to say no, to say, I don't want to opt in and opt out."
What Can You Do?
The best defense against dark patterns is awareness, knowing that many websites will try to steer you into making a decision that ultimately may not be in your best interests.
Second, resist the urge to act impulsively because either you're in a hurry or you're trying to beat the clock.
Third, make time to read everything you can on a website before providing information or committing to an online purchase. Look for that small, grayed-out print.
Fourth, If you subscribe to a service that allows family members to make purchases without your consent, implement a family rule. Tell your kids they must check with you first -- and they'll have to pay if they don't.
And fifth, if you can't find a cancellation or opt-out page on a website, Google it -- someone will have had a similar experience before.
Sixth, follow the @darkpatterns Twitter feed to stay abreast of the latest tricks.
And, finally, if you become aware that you've fallen victim, visit the darkpatternstipline.org site, which is operated by Consumer Reports and file your complaint or experience.
The real problem for the future is the thin, gray line between deception and what some marketers call "nudges" to influence your behavior. Because of this, it's difficult for lawmakers to frame protective legislation.
It's up to you to be on your guard!
Alert of the Week
Are you a T-Mobile user? Are you confused by some of the reports about the data breach the company announced recently?
You're not alone. The situation seems to keep changing. Some users are unsure about whether they've been affected, what details the hackers have gotten their hands on, and what to do about it.
It may be some time before the full picture emerges. At the time of writing, the company said its investigations into what information had been accessed were ongoing.
However, the firm says it has no information suggesting any passwords, postpaid PIN numbers, or financial or payment information have been compromised.
Keep up to date on this changing situation here: NOTICE OF DATA BREACH: Keeping You Safe From Cybersecurity Threats.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.