How Companies’ Online ‘Dark Patterns’ Cost You, and How to Resist

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Written by Liz Weston, CFP®
Senior Writer
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Edited by Courtney Neidel
Assigning Editor
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See if any of this sounds familiar:

  • You can’t find an easy way to cancel an unwanted subscription, so you let it continue for another month — telling yourself you’ll try again later.

  • You feel rushed into an online purchase you regret, but there’s no option to undo the transaction or demand a refund. 

  • You want to read an article or shop at a store online, but you’re bombarded with pop-up requests for your data. There’s no easy option for saying no, so you click “allow” just to get the annoying pop-up out of the way.

These are just a few examples of “dark patterns” — intentionally deceptive designs that companies use to steer people into making choices that aren’t in the consumers’ best interest.

Dark patterns may sound like a feature of sketchy websites, but these manipulative practices are a common way mainstream companies dupe people into sacrificing their privacy or paying for stuff they don’t really want.

Buttons that allow sites to scoop up and sell your data may be prominent, while the buttons for opting out are obscured. Retail sites may use a countdown timer to imply a deal is about to expire, when in reality there’s no deadline. Or you might see a fake low-stock warning — “Hurry, limited quantities left” — that pressures you to buy.

Making something easy to buy but hard to cancel is another common goal of dark patterns.

You’ve probably encountered 'roach motels' and 'Iliad'

The Federal Trade Commission issued a report last year on the rise of dark patterns and since then has taken action against several companies, including online retailer Amazon and Epic Games, which makes the Fortnite video game.

In March, Epic Games was ordered to pay consumers $245 million to settle charges it tricked users into making unwanted purchases, allowed children to rack up unauthorized charges and deliberately made refund options hard to find.

Then in June, the FTC filed a complaint alleging Amazon duped people into signing up for Amazon Prime subscriptions and then designed a “labyrinthine” cancellation process. “Fittingly, Amazon named that process ‘Iliad,’ which refers to Homer’s epic about the long, arduous Trojan War,” the complaint notes. (Subscriptions that are easy to sign up for and hard to cancel are known as “roach motels,” according to Deceptive Patterns, a site that tracks dark patterns.)

Meanwhile, state attorneys general from Indiana, Texas, Washington state and Washington, D.C., sued Google over allegations the company used dark patterns to get access to consumers’ location data.

Regulators’ actions send a clear signal to companies that they need to clean up their acts, says Alexis Hancock, director of engineering on the public interest technology team at Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital civil liberties, including privacy.

But signals may not be enough. These practices are so common that federal laws specifically banning dark patterns may be needed to protect consumer pocketbooks and privacy, says Matt Schwartz, a policy analyst for tech and privacy at Consumer Reports.

“People deserve more legal protections against this type of behavior, because it's clear that the industry is not going to self-regulate,” Schwartz says.

What you can do to fight back

The burden shouldn’t be on consumers to prevent companies from deceptively collecting their data and money, Schwartz says. But there are a few ways consumers can fight back:

Slow down. Dark patterns often count on our tendency to move too fast when navigating the web, Hancock says. We need to slow long enough to read the options on a pop-up and understand what pushing a button actually does. Simply being more aware of dark patterns can help you spot them and defuse their effectiveness.

Don’t sign up or buy without knowing how to cancel. Read a site’s refund policies before purchasing. With subscriptions, the FTC recommends investigating the cancellation process before signing up and advises, “If it’s not clear to you how to cancel, walk away.”

Make a fuss. Document the dark patterns you find by taking screenshots. You can send those to the Dark Patterns tip line maintained by Consumer Reports, and make complaints to the FTC or your state attorney general’s office. Consider not doing business with sites that employ dark patterns — and let them know, via feedback forms on their sites and social media, why you’re walking away, Hancock suggests.

“Yell about it,” Hancock advises. “Just keep calling them out.”

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.