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  • Writer's pictureSophia Satapathy

Can You Spot These Dark Patterns While Shopping Online?

Dark Patterns Online Shopping

With online shopping on the rise, unscrupulous tactics are emerging. Dark patterns trick users into purchasing or sharing private data. These deceptive designs exploit our innate biases. As e-commerce grows, so do strategies to manipulate shoppers.

Dark patterns are interfaces designed to mislead users. Websites or apps use tricks like fake urgency or hidden fees to nudge choices against one's interests. With rising internet usage, such patterns endanger consumer rights. Regulators warn against unfair practices infringing on choices. However, understanding dark patterns and protective steps empowers users.

This article defines common deceptive designs and provides real examples of how they undermine autonomy. Tactics like "confirm shaming" or "trick questions" intentionally influence decisions. The analysis explains the rising threat as online transactions increase. Finally, measures are discussed for consumers and authorities to counter such manipulation. Knowledge is power in this digital age with its attendant risks.

Common Dark Pattern Tactics

Dark Pattern Tactics

Description

Urgency/Scarcity tactics

Creating a sense of urgency or scarcity to pressure consumers into purchasing or taking an action.

Forced enrollment/signups

Requiring users to sign up or enroll in a service, often without clear disclosure or making it difficult to opt-out.

Hidden costs & sneaking

Hiding additional costs or fees from consumers until they are already committed to purchasing.

Misdirection

Directing or diverting users' attention from important information or options often leads to unintended actions or choices.

Nagging/Pestering

Persistently and annoyingly urging or pressuring users to take specific actions, such as downloading an app or signing up for a service.

Roach motel subscriptions

This makes it easy for consumers to sign up for a service but intentionally makes it difficult for them to cancel or unsubscribe.

Bait & switch

Advertising one product or service but delivering another, often of lower quality or value, to deceive and mislead consumers.

Disguised Ads

Designing advertisements to resemble other types of content, such as news articles or user-generated content, to trick users into clicking or engaging.

Deliberate misdirection

Focusing the user's attention on a more expensive option or hiding the cheaper alternative leads to higher-priced choices.

Privacy Zuckering

Manipulating or coercing users into sharing more private information than they intended to disclose.

Sneak into Basket

Adding random additional items or services to a user's shopping cart or basket without their explicit consent or knowledge.

Road-Block

Interrupting or obstructing a user's intended action with pop-ups, notifications, or barriers that hinder progress.

Misinformation

Using misleading information, trick questions, or checkbox manipulation to deceive users or gain their consent for unwanted actions or data usage.

Forced Action

Compelling or forcing users to take an action they may not want to take, such as signing up for a service to access content.

Drip Pricing

Disclosing only a partial price of a product or service, hiding additional costs or elements that customers have to bear.

Confirm-shaming

Using shame or guilt-inducing language or tactics to manipulate users into making certain choices or decisions.

 

Real Examples of Dark Patterns

Here are some real examples of dark patterns used by companies:

  • Amazon used to automatically enroll customers in its Prime membership without consent, which made it very difficult for people to cancel their Prime subscriptions. For this, the FTC sued Amazon

  • JustFab shows products online but only allows you to add them to your cart once you create an account and share your details.

  • GrubHub charged customers hidden fees during checkout that were not displayed prominently during shopping. Customers were penalized for this misleading tactic.

  • Websites like Ticketmaster use countdown timers to create a false sense of urgency and encourage people to buy tickets quickly without thinking. However, the offer only expires in some cases.


Dark Patterns Online Shopping

An example of hidden costs is fees added at the end of the purchase and made less obvious. SHEIN IMAGE COURTESY OF KNOWNHOST

  • Some clothing sites like Shein add extra charges like "handling fees" only at the end of the payment, which were not visible to customers during shopping.

  • E-commerce platforms like Etsy and Poshmark constantly send pop-up notifications to make people join their mailing lists or share contact information. It isn't easy to make these pop-ups stop appearing.

  • Many companies use small fonts, confusing language, or hidden options to automatically sign people up for newsletters or additional services without asking for consent. This leads to people sharing more personal data than they intended to.

These examples show how major companies use sneaky techniques, such as hiding important information, adding extra charges, creating fake urgency, and making important options very difficult to find to manipulate customer behavior for their benefit. This can cause financial and privacy harm to unaware consumers.

Impact on Consumers

Dark patterns impact consumers in the following ways:

  • Unplanned purchases and expenses: Dark patterns like false urgency, bait and switch, forced action, etc., can trick consumers into buying products or services they did not intend to buy. This leads to unplanned expenses, such as extra products being added to the cart without knowledge.

  • Loss of privacy through data collection: Deceptive interfaces make consumers share more personal information than required. This leads to a loss of privacy as private data is collected without consent for commercial gains, such as forced sharing of Aadhar/phone numbers.

  • Frustration with shopping experience: Manipulative designs frustrate consumers as they spend more time understanding website interfaces or deciphering charges. Tactics like sneaky subscriptions that make cancellation complex also irritate. This negatively impacts consumer experience and trust in brands.

In simple words, dark patterns exploit consumers by manipulating their choices. This leads to financial losses, privacy breaches, and customer dissatisfaction. Regulating such practices is important to protect consumer interests.

Regulations on Dark Patterns

Regulations on Dark Patterns around the world and in India:

  • Global organizations like the FTC (USA)CMA (UK)EU, etc., are working to prevent dark patterns that trick customers online.

  • The FTC in the USA filed cases against big companies like Amazon and Instagram for using dark patterns. CMA in the UK investigates websites and apps using dark patterns.

  • In India, our Consumer Protection Act 2019 and guidelines by ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) aim to protect customers from digital tricks.

  • The Consumer Protection Act states that companies cannot mislead customers through false ads or terms and conditions. ASCI ensures that ads are truthful and not confusing.

  • In 2023, India's CCPA (Central Consumer Protection Authority) issued new guidelines on dark patterns after soliciting public opinion.

  • These guidelines explain dark patterns, like sneaky extra charges, fake urgency, etc., and tell companies not to use them.

  • If companies still use dark patterns, the CCPA can take action, such as fines or forcing the company to change its website or app.

  • Many global studies found that big e-commerce sites use dark patterns, too. However, responsible companies are now making their websites clear and simple for customers.

So, India and other countries are waking up to the risks of dark patterns online and taking action through laws and investigations to protect consumers.

How to Spot & Avoid Dark Patterns

Here are some tips to help spot and avoid dark patterns:

  1. Be careful of words that create a sense of urgency, like limited-time offers, running out of stock, etc. Websites may use such words to trick you into making a quick decision.

  2. Please read all the small print and terms and conditions carefully. Important details, such as extra charges, may be hidden here.

  3. Browse privately so websites cannot track you and show personalized ads or offers.

  4. Know your rights as a consumer. Websites should not force you to buy things you didn't plan to. You have the right to say no and get refunds in some cases.

  5. Be wary of pop-ups or messages that guilt you into signing up for newsletters or subscriptions. Take time to think before agreeing to anything.

  6. Check if prices shown for a product change later when you add it to the cart or reach the payment page. Hidden extra costs are a red flag.

  7. Be careful of ads disguised as real content or reviews. If the promotion seems too good to be true, think twice.

  8. Make sure signup and cancellation processes for subscriptions are clear and easy to understand. Tricky cancellations could be a dark pattern.

We hope these simple tips help people protect themselves from manipulative techniques used by some websites. Staying informed is the best defense against dark patterns.

Conclusion

Dark patterns are deceptive design tactics that undermine consumer autonomy by manipulating users into purchasing or sharing personal data. As online shopping grows, consumers must remain alert to the dark patterns discussed in this article, such as false scarcity messages, hidden costs, or complex cancellation processes.

Moving forward, all stakeholders - including regulators, companies, and consumers - need to work together to promote transparency in digital commerce. Platforms must ensure that user interfaces are designed with consumer interests in mind. At the same time, consumers should educate themselves to make well-informed decisions and report any suspicious practices. We can only curb the misuse of dark patterns and build a trusted online marketplace for all through collaborative efforts.

Stay vigilant while shopping online. Learn to identify common dark patterns and report any deceptive practices to appropriate authorities for investigation. Your awareness can help create a fairer digital marketplace.

FAQs

How do dark patterns affect consumer trust online?

When consumers feel manipulated, they erode their trust in websites and online shopping. They become more guarded with personal data and less likely to make purchases. Over time, this trust deficit can damage businesses and stall the growth of e-commerce.

Is it legal for companies to use dark patterns?

The legality varies across jurisdictions. While no explicit laws against dark patterns exist, practices like hidden charges or false advertising could violate consumer protection acts. Regulators are increasingly scrutinizing problematic interfaces and enforcing penalties. Consumers also have the right to redress in cases of harm or fraud.

How can I avoid dark patterns on mobile apps?

Be cautious of pop-ups and notifications seeking urgent action. Review permission requests carefully before allowing access to sensitive data. Use app tracking/ad blockers when possible. Check subscription and cancellation processes thoroughly. Report deceptive interfaces so developers update experiences for all users.

What should regulators do about dark patterns?

Regulators must set clear guidelines defining the boundary between persuasion and manipulation. They must mandate simple cancellation flows and prominent disclosure of all costs. They must monitor compliance through mystery shopping. They must also impose hefty fines on repeat offenders to disincentivize the use of underhanded tactics. Finally, they must educate consumers about their rights.

Are some dark patterns more unethical than others?

The most unethical tactics are those that directly cause financial harm, like hidden charges. However, even less directly exploitative patterns undermine consumer autonomy. The most deceptive practices that significantly impact vulnerable groups should be the top priority for regulation and bans. Consent plays a key role in determining the acceptability of a design.


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