Miller: Beware of ‘dark patterns’: Hidden tricks and pitfalls in websites | Opinion

Have you ever signed up for a gym membership, subscription service, or other account, then later decided 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 company-created user interface is called a dark model, and they have been used for the sole purpose of tricking or manipulating users into behavior that is profitable for the company.

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

These manipulative UI designs obscure, subvert, or trick consumers into doing something they didn’t intend, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

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

Dark patterns rely on consumers’ tendency to skim over and make assumptions when browsing websites. For example, darkpatterns.org reports that businesses that want to take advantage of this will make a page appear to be saying one thing when in fact it means another.

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

g Trick questions: when you fill out a form, you answer a question that prompts you to give an answer that you did not intend to give. When looked at quickly, the question seems to ask one thing, but when read carefully, it asks for something quite different.

g Sneak into cart: You try to buy something, but somewhere in the shopping journey the site slips an additional item into your cart, often using an opt-out radio button or checkbox on a Previous page.

g Roach motel: You find yourself in a situation very easily, but then you find it difficult to get out of it (eg a premium membership).

g Confidentiality zuckering: You are led to share more information about yourself publicly than you actually intend. Named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

g Prevented from comparing prices: the retailer prevents you from comparing the price of an item with another item, so you cannot make an informed decision.

g Misdirection: The design deliberately focuses your attention on one thing in order to divert your attention from another.

g Hidden costs: you come to the last step of the checkout process, only to find that unexpected charges have appeared, e.g. delivery charges, taxes, etc.

g Bait and switch: You are about to do one thing, but something different and undesirable happens instead.

g Confirm humiliation: the act of making the user feel guilty into agreeing to something. The opt-out is worded in a way that shames the user into complying.

g Disguised advertisements: advertisements disguised as other types of content or navigation, in order to entice you to click on them.

g Forced Continuity: When your free trial with a service comes to an end and your credit card silently begins to be charged without any warning. In some cases, this is made even worse by making it difficult to cancel membership.

g Spamming friends: The product asks for your email address or social media permissions on the pretense that it will be used for a desirable outcome (e.g. finding friends), but then spams all of your contacts in a message claiming to be from you.

In October 2021, the Federal Trade Commission issued an enforcement policy statement warning companies against using illegal dark patterns. The policy warned companies that they could be subject to legal action if their registration process did not provide clear, up-front information, obtain informed consent from consumers and facilitate cancellation.

The agency’s decision to step up the fight against illegal dark schemes came after a rise in consumer complaints about financial harm caused by deceptive listing tactics, including unauthorized charges or unpayable ongoing billing. to cancel.

Under the Enforcement Policy Statement, companies must meet three key requirements or be subject to enforcement action, including potential civil penalties:

g Clearly and prominently disclose all material terms of the product or service, including its cost, the time within which the consumer must act to stop other charges, the amount and frequency of such charges, how to cancel, and information on the product or service itself which is necessary to prevent consumers from being deceived about the characteristics of the product or service. The statement provides details of what clear and visible means, noting in particular that the information must be provided upfront when the consumer first sees the offer and generally as visible as the offer itself.

g Obtain the express informed consent of the consumer before charging him for a product or service. This includes obtaining the consumer’s acceptance of the negative option function separately from other parties to the entire transaction, excluding information that interferes with, harms, contradicts or compromises any other consumer’s ability to provide express informed consent.

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

While the FTC released its policy statement last year, it has worked through several cases that include elements of illegal dark motives.

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

According to the FTC’s complaint, the company misled consumers about the actual price of items purchased under its plans. This was achieved by the way the company only displayed the “cash price” of items when presenting rental terms. To see the total cost of the payment plans, customers had to click on a drop-down feature called “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 full cost of its 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., operator of ABCmouse, would pay $10 million and change its marketing and billing practices. to settle claims that it had not adequately disclosed. key membership requirements between 2015 and 2018.

According to the FTC, ABCmouse advertised six-month or 12-month “Special Offer” subscriptions, but it did not tell consumers that the plans would automatically renew and consumers would be billed indefinitely until canceled. The FTC also alleged that ABCmouse made it difficult for consumers to cancel their subscriptions, causing them to incur unwanted additional charges. In total, the FTC estimates that 200,000 consumers have been affected by Age of Learning’s practices.

Sound familiar? That’s because this marketing and billing system looks like a dark “cockroach motel” model.

When exploring organizations, businesses, and other services online, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office recommends that you take your time and beware of complacent clicks. Be sure to read the pop-up carefully and alert before giving your consent by “accepting” or dismissing the pop-ups.

If you believe you have found a dark pattern or have been affected by unfair, deceptive, or deceptive acts and practices, contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Office at 1-888-777-4590 or email [email protected] ag.iowa.gov. You can also report dark patterns to the dark pattern information line at darkpatternstipline.org.


Tom Miller is the Attorney General of Iowa. He can be reached at [email protected]

About Stuart M. McFarland

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