Experts are warning consumers about shady online business practices that the Federal Trade Commission and tech insiders refer to as “dark patterns.”
“By their very nature, dark patterns are subtle, manipulative and deceptive,” FTC Attorney Stephanie Liebner told KTLA’s David Lazarus. “So, as a consumer, it’s hard to spot them. It’s hard to protect yourself.”
In fact, dark patterns are intended to prevent consumers from making informed decisions, instead misleading them into doing what the company wants.
“There are some cases where it’s sort of blatant trickery,” Clifford Neuman, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Computer Systems Security, said. “There are other cases where it’s simply making one action maybe easier than other actions.”
Dark patterns can be as simple as prechecked boxes on websites committing consumers to unwanted purchases. They can be as sneaky as hiding disclosures in places companies know most people will not look, like fine print or pop-up boxes.
A particularly insidious dark pattern is the inclusion of unexpected fees during the checkout process. By this time, the company knows most people will already be committed to the transaction.
“Those are some classic examples of dark patterns that you can encounter often in the digital world that can affect your decision making in ways you don’t expect,” Liebner said.
Lengthy user agreements are another common dark pattern. Most people will simply click the OK button without reading the pages and pages of terms.
“In fact, there have been many instances where there are terms embedded in those conditions that if someone had actually read…there’s no way they’d agree to them,” Neuman said.
Unfortunately, dark patterns are not illegal. As long as a business can point to a disclosure anywhere on its site, it can claim customers were informed.
Consumers can try to protect themselves by always looking closely for added fees or prechecked boxes when they reach the checkout screen of an online purchase. Also, you should inspect your credit card statements for unexpected or recurring charges, and after canceling a service, make sure the billing has stopped.
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