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Have you ever had a difficult time canceling an online account or subscription service? Maybe the ‘unsubscribe’ or ‘cancel’ button was hard to find, or you had to answer several questions first before being able to finally cancel?

Computer screen

These practices are known as “dark patterns” and they are becoming increasingly common on a variety of websites. Dark patterns are deceptive strategies used by businesses to manipulate the decisions made by their online customers. This may result in consumers spending more money than they had anticipated, signing up for services they do not want, or spending more time and attention on a website than they intended. Several groups are advocating for the removal of dark patterns since they can make navigating the internet more difficult for individuals who speak English as a second language as well as individuals who have less experience using online commerce. Unfortunately, dark patterns sit on the edge of legality, making it difficult for lawmakers to pass legislation against these practices.

Several different types of dark patterns have been identified since 2010, such as:

  • Friend Spam – A website will ask you for permission to access your contact list (usually under good pretenses) but will then send messages to your friends claiming to be from you.
  • Trick Questions – Questions that trick you into giving an answer you did not mean to give, or a question that is worded in a confusing way.
  • Disguised Ads – Advertisements that look like a part of the website content or navigation, in order to get you to accidentally click on them.
  • Confirm Shaming – Websites that make a user feel guilt or shame when selecting an option other than what the company desires.
  • Roach Motel – Websites that allow you to sign up for their services easily, but are then very difficult to unsubscribe from.

How can you avoid falling into these traps? The best way to avoid dark patterns is to slow down and read carefully before signing up for a subscription or purchasing a product. Federal and state governments are slowly addressing dark patterns as well – California recently added regulations to the “California Consumer Privacy Act” that prohibit companies from using some misleading means. 

Consumer Reports has also created the “Dark Patterns Tip Line,” where consumers can submit screen shots of dark patterns they have encountered on the web. Launched in 2021, the tip line now contains a multitude of real-life examples others have encountered.

What are some dark patterns you have experienced?

Sources:

Reicin, E. (2021). Understanding Dark Patterns: How to Stay Out of the Gray Areas. BBB National Programs. https://bbbprograms.org/media-center/blog-details/insights/2021/05/19/dark-patterns

Deceptive Design. Types of Deceptive Design.  https://www.deceptive.design/types

Dark Patterns Tip Line.  https://darkpatternstipline.org/

Germain, T. (2021). New Dark Patterns Tip Line Lets You Report Manipulative Online Practices. Consumer Reports. https://www.consumerreports.org/digital-rights/dark-patterns-tip-line-report-manipulative-practices-a1196931056/

Author: Jessica Lowe, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator, Ohio State University Extension, Pickaway County, lowe.495@osu.edu

Reviewer:  Misty Harmon, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator, Ohio State University Extension, Perry County, harmon.416@osu.edu

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