Tactics like these are sometimes illegal under federal law that prohibits “fraudulent practices of any kind,” said Katharine Roller, an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). But many hide in the shadow of the law; there are no light legal lines to tell if the font on a web page is too small or a field too hidden to go from legal to illegal. And online businesses, fundraisers, and, yes, crooks know that.
“At the moment, dark patterns are increasing,” says Roller. “They manipulate consumers into spending more than they intended, buying things they don’t want, or subscribing to things they don’t need.”
Finding dark patterns is a hot topic among fraud prevention experts. And lawmakers are considering giving the FTC more explicit powers to regulate them, according to Lior Strahilevitz, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
A 2019 study found dark patterns in 11 percent of 11,000 shopping websites. – “That’s a conservative estimate,” says lead author Arunesh Mathur of Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He also found them in political emails.
And everyone is in danger. “I was fooled by them, as were computer experts who study them,” says Strahilevitz.
Legislative efforts to stamp out the deception are likely to take a while. In the meantime, here’s how to spot and avoid six types of dark patterns.
1. Trick questions
Shopping websites may use duplicate negatives or other tangled language to confuse you. In a study co-authored by Strahilevitz, half of the participants who chose a subscription service based on a series of tricky questions thought they had turned it down.
Outsmart them: If a question is difficult to understand, read through it several times. In rare cases it is an innocent case of poor wording. But often it is deliberately confusing. “If you read a question twice and don’t understand it, that’s your cue to stop,” says Strahilevitz.
2. Fool your eyes forgery
Visual tricks can trick you into clicking a bright red “Yes” button instead of a muted gray “No” button, missing important information in the fine print, or forcing you to click through multiple screens to find an unwanted one Avoid buying, says Mathur.
Outsmart them: Always read the fine print. If necessary, increase the font size on your computer. And bring a healthy level of skepticism: any signs of deceptive or coercive language should get you moving.
3. Bullying buttons
Mathur found 164 websites that got shoppers to click a button that said something like “No thanks, I’d rather pay full price” or “I don’t want a day delivery” to decline a purchase. This tactic called “confirm-shaming” is aimed at tricking you into making an unwanted purchase, he says.
Outsmart them: Remember, you are in control. Shrug psychological tricks and only say what you want, says Kelly Quinn, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
4. “End at midnight” and “only 1 left” blurbs
In Mathur’s study, 40 percent of the discount countdown timers were fakes – the deal was still available when the timer expired.
Outsmart them: Don’t let the fear of missing out on something force you into a hasty purchase, he says. Take the time to compare prices and options. For most consumer goods or services, sales come and go all the time.
5. Sneaky extras
Mathur found 62 websites that preselected expensive products or pressured buyers to select them. Seven have smuggled additional items into their shopping carts.
Outsmart them: “Check your shopping cart very carefully before confirming a purchase,” says Strahilevitz. “I’ve seen subscriptions and donations being added.”
6. Data theft
Frequently, websites and apps try to get information like your cell phone number, address, and email address. “Personal information is valuable,” says Quinn. “Businesses sell it and use it to target you.”
Outsmart them: Give away as little as possible online. Do not include your phone number for optional discounts or orders.
Sari Harrar is an associate editor for AARP publications, which specializes in health and science.
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