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Beware of ‘dark patterns’: Tricks and traps hidden in websites

Canceling accounts can be a pain, finding true costs difficult. It’s on purpose 

March 9, 2022

Have you ever signed up for a gym membership, a subscription service, or other account and then decided down the road that it just wasn’t for you? But when you went to cancel the account, you found the process difficult, confusing, and time consuming?   

It’s not you, it’s them: This type of user interface created by the company is called a dark pattern, and they’ve been employed with the sole purpose of deceiving or manipulating users into a behavior that is profitable to the business. 

What are dark patterns & how do they work?  

Dark patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn't mean to, like buying or signing up for something.  

These manipulative user interface designs intentionally or unintentionally obscure, subvert, or otherwise induce consumers to do something they didn't intend. 

The Federal Trade Commission notes that dark patterns can result in items being added to a customer’s online cart without their knowledge or requiring users to navigate a maze of screens and confusing questions to avoid being charged for unwanted products or services.  

Dark patterns rely on consumers’ tendencies to skim and make assumptions when perusing websites. For instance, reports that companies wanting to take advantage of this will make a page look like it says one thing when it in fact means another.  

This is achieved through an array of different dark patterns, including:  

What’s Being Done  

In October 2021, the Federal Trade Commission issued an enforcing policy statement warning companies against employing illegal dark patterns. The policy put companies on notice that they could face legal action if their sign-up process fails to provide clear, up-front information, obtain consumers’ informed consent, and make cancellation easy.  

The agency’s decision to ramp up enforcement against illegal dark patterns came after an uptick in consumer complaints about the financial harms caused by deceptive sign-up tactics, including unauthorized charges or ongoing billing that is impossible cancel. 

Under the enforcement policy statement, businesses must follow three key requirements or be subject to law enforcement action, including potential civil penalties: 

  • Disclose clearly and conspicuously all material terms of the product or service, including how much it costs, deadlines by which the consumer must act to stop further charges, the amount and frequency of such charges, how to cancel, and information about the product or service itself that is needed to stop consumers from being deceived about the characteristics of the product or service. The statement provides detail on what clear and conspicuous means, particularly noting that the information must be provided upfront when the consumer first sees the offer and generally as prominent as the deal offer itself. 

  • Obtain the consumer’s express informed consent before charging them for a product or services. This includes obtaining the consumer’s acceptance of the negative option feature separately from other portions of the entire transaction, not including information that interferes with, detracts from, contradicts, or otherwise undermines the consumer’s ability to provide their express informed consent. 

  • Provide easy and simple cancellation to the consumer. Marketers should provide cancellation mechanisms that are at least as easy to use as the method the consumer used to buy the product or service in the first place. 

Two Cases  

While the FTC issued its policy statement last year, it has worked on several cases that include elements of illegal dark patterns.  

In April 2020, the FTC settled a case with rent-to-own payment plan company Progressive Leasing that could be considered a dark pattern, employing the misdirection method.  

According to the FTC complaint, the company misled consumers about the true price of items purchased through its plans. This was achieved by the way the company displayed only the “cash price” of items when presenting leasing terms. To see the full cost of payment plans, customers had to click on a drop-down feature labeled “additional lease details.”  

Customers purchasing items through Progressive Leasing initially saw the 
above screen when reviewing terms of the purchase. The form shows the “cash price” of the item, but not the entire cost.  

To see the entire cost of a purchase, customers would have to toggle the drop-down arrow under “additional lease details.”  

Under the settlement, Progressive Leasing agreed to pay $175 million and stop misrepresenting the cost, terms, and nature of its plans. The company was also required to clearly disclose the total cost to own products when marketing its plans.  

The following year, in April 2021, the FTC announced that online children’s education company Age of Learning, Inc., the operator of ABCmouse, would pay $10 million and change its marketing and billing practices to settle claims it failed to adequately disclose key membership terms between 2015 and 2018. 

According to the FTC, ABCmouse advertised “Special Offer” 6- or 12-month memberships, but it did not tell consumers that the plans would automatically renew, and consumers would be charged indefinitely until they canceled. The FTC also alleged that ABCmouse made it difficult for consumers to cancel their memberships, which led them to incur additional, unwanted charges. In all, the FTC believes that 200,000 consumers were affected by Age of Learning’s practices. 

Sound familiar? That’s because this marketing and billing system resembles a “roach motel” dark pattern.  

What you can do 

As you explore organizations, companies and other services online, the Iowa Attorney General’s office recommends you take your time and be cautious of complacent clicking. Be sure to read pop-up and alert carefully before giving your consent by “accepting” or clearing windows.  

If you believe you have found a dark pattern or been affected by unfair, misleading or deceptive acts and practices, contact the Iowa Attorney General’s office. To file a complaint, go here or call 515-281-5926 (in the Des Moines area) or 888-777-4590 (outside the metro area). 

You can also report dark patterns to the Dark Patterns Tip Line.  

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