Beware of “dark patterns” on consumer websites


Another website risk emerged apart from phishing, hackers, general fraud and selling our personal information without consent.

The Federal Trade Commission released a study in September on certain web design practices called “dark patterns.” These patterns are appearing more often, and the FTC report contains suggested warning signs to alert us.

Harry Brignull, a web design scholar, coined the term “dark patterns” in 2010 to describe design practices that trick or manipulate users into making choices they wouldn’t otherwise make and are detrimental to them. probably detrimental.

The FTC report draws on recent enforcement actions and ideas for examples. “Dark models often take advantage of consumers’ cognitive biases to direct their conduct or delay access to the information needed to make informed decisions,” the report says.

Consumers are not as aware as they should be of manipulative design practices on frequently visited websites. Dark schemes aim to trick users, steal their data, and trick them into making choices they wouldn’t otherwise. The problem is becoming more and more frequent. Worse, many consumers don’t recognize the deceptive approach, and those who do often don’t report it.

Dark patterns can be found in a variety of industries and contexts, including e-commerce, cookie consent banners, children’s apps, and subscription sales. The use of dark patterns is quickly becoming more common on mobile apps than on websites.

Research shows that dark patterns are very effective in influencing consumer behavior. For example, one study found that dark patterns doubled the percentage of consumers who signed up for a dubious identity theft protection service, compared to consumers who were presented with a neutral offer. Using more than one dark pattern on a website greatly increased the likelihood of tricking the victim into making a bad and damaging decision.

In 2019, researchers from Princeton University analyzed and found a total of 1,818 instances of dark patterns among 11,000 shopping websites. In a related event, state attorneys general sued Google over “dark pattern” allegations earlier this year.

The report highlights some special cases, such as:

Loan comparison website LendEDU has been accused of using a dark pattern of false belief. He misled consumers into believing that his website objectively ranked loan products when he offered higher rankings to businesses that paid more to be placed on his website. The company touted false positive reviews on its website.

In the Raging Bull case, the FTC alleged that operators of an online stock trading site used deceptive customer testimonials to lure consumers, concealed purported disclaimers in text boxes dense requiring scrolling to find them, and sold services as a subscription but made it hard to cancel and stop recurring charges.

Here is a brief list of other general examples:

• Hide fees and charges until the end of the purchase process.
• Offer a free trial which incurs recurring subscription fees.
• Have processes that make it difficult to cancel a subscription.
• Collect personal information even if it is not necessary to complete a transaction.
• To pander to false beliefs formatted to look like independent news content, which is not unbiased but is actually related to advertisers.
• Ads that misquote well-known news outlets to add credibility and entice purchase.

The gist of the matter is that you need to be vigilant and skeptical. The Latin term, caveat emptor, which buyer beware, remains an important guideline.

Although the FTC’s report is a bit long, I recommend that you take the time to read the professionally written report, which you can find on the FTC’s website, titled “Bringing Dark Patterns to Light”.

Mark Sievers, president of Epsilon Financial Group, is a certified financial planner with a master’s degree in business administration from the University of California, Berkeley. Contact him by email at [email protected].


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