Do any of these things sound familiar to you?
● You can’t find an easy way to cancel an unwanted subscription, so you let it continue for another month. You tell yourself you’ll try again later.
● You feel rushed to make an online purchase that you regret, but you cannot cancel the transaction or request a refund.
● You want to read an article or shop online, but you are bombarded with pop-ups asking for your information. There’s no easy language to say, so you click “allow” just to get the annoying pop-up out of the way.
These are just a few examples of “dark patterns” – deliberately deceptive patterns that companies use to trick people into making choices that are not in the best interest of consumers.
Dark patterns may sound like natural websites, but these manipulative practices are a common way for mainstream companies to trick people into sacrificing their privacy or paying for things they really don’t want.
Buttons that allow sites to collect and sell your information may be prominently displayed, while opt-out buttons are hidden. Retail sites can use a timer to give the impression that a deal is about to expire, when in reality there is no deadline. Or you might see a fake low-stock alert – “Hurry, limited quantities left” – to pressure you into buying.
Another common goal of dark patterns is to make something easy to buy but hard to cancel.
YOU’VE PROBABLY SEEN ROACH MOTELS AND THE ILIAD
The Federal Trade Commission released a report last year on the rise of dark patterns and has since taken action against several companies, including online retailer Amazon and Epic Games, maker of the Fortnite video game.
In March, Epic Games was ordered to pay consumers $245 million to settle payments for tricking users into making unwanted purchases, allowing children to collect unauthorized payments and intentionally making it difficult to find refund options.
Then in June, the FTC filed a complaint alleging that Amazon tricked people into signing up for Amazon Prime subscriptions and then engineered a “labyrinthine” cancellation process. “Appropriately, Amazon named this process the ‘Iliad,’ a reference to Homer’s epic about the long, arduous Trojan War,” the complaint notes. (Easy subscriptions that are easy to sign up for and hard to cancel are called roach motels, according to the website Deceptive Patterns, which tracks dark patterns.)
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Indiana, Texas, Washington state and Washington, D.C. sued Google over allegations that the company used dark patterns to gain access to consumers’ location data.
The regulators’ actions send a clear signal to companies that they need to clean up their act, said Alexis Hancock, engineering director of the public interest technology team at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital civil liberties, including privacy.
“People deserve more legal protection against this kind of behavior because it’s clear that the industry is not going to regulate itself,” says Schwartz.
WHAT YOU CAN DO BACK
Consumers shouldn’t have the burden to stop companies from collecting their information and money in a misleading way, Schwartz says. But there are a few ways consumers can fight back:
Slow down. Dark patterns often rely on our tendency to move too quickly when navigating the web, says Hancock. We need to slow down long enough to read the popup options and understand what pressing the button actually does. Just being aware of dark patterns can help you spot them and reduce their effectiveness.
Do not register or purchase without knowing how to cancel. Please read the site’s refund policy before purchasing. For subscriptions, the FTC recommends researching the cancellation process before signing up, advising, “If you’re not clear about how to cancel, walk away.”
It bothers me. Document the dark patterns you find by taking screenshots. You can send them to Consumer Reports’ Dark Patterns tip line and file complaints with the FTC or your state’s attorney general’s office. Consider not doing business with sites that use dark patterns — and let them know via feedback forms on the sites and on social media why you’re leaving, Hancock suggests.
“Shout about it,” advises Hancock. “Just keep calling them.”