How to Avoid “Dark Patterns” on Your Credit Card Bill


Such tactics are sometimes illegal under federal law that prohibits “deceptive practices of any kind,” says Katharine Roller, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). But many are hiding in the shadow of the law; there are no clear legal lines indicating when the type on a web page is too small or a box too hidden to change from legal to illegal. And online businesses, fundraisers and, yes, scammers know that.

“Dark models are on the rise right now,” Roller says. “They manipulate consumers into spending more than they expected, buying things they don’t want, or staying subscribed to things they don’t need. “

The crackdown on dark models is a hot topic among anti-fraud experts. And lawmakers are considering giving the FTC more explicit authority to regulate them, according to Lior Strahilevitz, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

A 2019 study found dark patterns in 11% of 11,000 shopping websites. – “That’s a conservative estimate,” says lead author Arunesh Mathur of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. He also found them in political emails.

And everyone is in danger. “I was deceived by them and so computer experts are studying them,” Strahilevitz says.

The efforts of lawmakers to eliminate deception are likely to take some time. In the meantime, here’s how to spot – and avoid – six types of dark patterns.

1. Trick questions

Commercial websites may deploy double negatives or other convoluted wording to confuse you. In a study co-authored by Strahilevitz, half of participants who chose a subscription service through a series of tricky questions thought they had rejected it.

Outsmart them: If a question is difficult to understand, read it several times. On rare occasions, this is an innocent case of misconception. But often, it’s deliberately confusing. “If you read a question twice and don’t understand it, that’s your exit signal,” Strahilevitz says.

2. False pretense

Visual tricks can cause you to click a bright red ‘yes’ button instead of a muted gray ‘no’ button, miss important information hidden in the fine print, or force you to click multiple screens to avoid a purchase unwanted, says Mathur.

Outsmart them: Always read all the fine print. Enlarge the font size on your computer if necessary. And bring healthy skepticism: Any sign of deceptive or coercive language should push you on to something else.

3. Intimidation buttons

Mathur found 164 websites that trick buyers into clicking a button that says something like “No thanks, I’d rather pay full price” or “I don’t want overnight delivery” to decline a purchase. Called “confirm shame,” this tactic is meant to make you feel guilty about an unwanted purchase, he says.

Outsmart them: Remember, you are in control. Raise your shoulders psychological stuff and say yes only to what you want, says Kelly Quinn, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

4. Presentation texts “End at midnight” and “just 1 remainder”

In Mathur’s study, 40 percent of discount countdowns were fakes – the deal was still available at the end of the countdown.

Outsmart them: Don’t let the fear of missing out force you to make a hasty purchase, he says. Take your time to compare prices and options. For most consumer products or services, sales come and go all the time.

5. Sneaky extras

Mathur found 62 websites that pre-screened expensive products or pressured buyers to choose them. Seven slipped additional items into their baskets.

Outsmart them: “Check your cart very carefully before confirming a purchase,” says Strahilevitz. “I have seen subscriptions and donations added.”

6. Data entry

Websites and applications frequently attempt to obtain information such as your cell phone number, address, and email. “Personal information is valuable,” Quinn says. “Businesses sell it and use it to target advertisements to you.”

Outsmart them: Donate as little as possible online. Do not provide your phone number for optional discounts or to place an order.

Sari Harrar is a contributing editor of AARP publications specializing in health and science.

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