Companies use ‘dark patterns’ to slow customers from canceling, gather information

ATLANTA — They are called dark patterns.

Maybe you’ve never heard the term, but chances are you have been stuck in a dark pattern, a method websites used to purposely confuse and manipulate you online. Companies do it to get your money or information. Channel 2 investigative reporter Sophia Choi found there is one thing you can do to stop the frustration.

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Question after question, click after click, offer after offer, and you still can’t stop them. Enough consumers are complaining that now the federal government is involved.

Disney and Amazon are two companies the Federal Trade Commission took action against for using dark patterns. The problem is growing, and so are consumer complaints.

“I was just like, you got to be kidding me,” Debbie Hall said. She says she was the victim of a dark pattern.

“I’m out, what, about $140 right now, and they’re still trying to charge my card,” Hall said.

Hall locked her credit card so YouTube TV could not charge her anymore. She tried to cancel, but ran into a dark pattern.

“They make it extremely difficult and frustrating for customers. They’ll let you sign up, but then when you want to not have it anymore, you cannot cancel it,” Hall said.

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Have you ever tried to quit Amazon? Choi looked into it and found a confusing maze of options.

Starting at “Your account,” you have to scroll to the bottom of the screen, and under the “Let us help you” column, click “Help.” Then you must go to the bottom of that page to “Managing your account.” There, you’ll finally find the option “Request the closure of your account.” This is one example of a dark pattern.

Dark patterns come in many forms, but they all do the same thing: manipulate you, the consumer. Choi found other examples of dark patterns, like a pop-up message asking you to sign up for a free newsletter. All you have to do is enter your email. It’s hard to miss the consent button, unlike the decline option, shown far off on the side. The pop up also uses “confirm shaming,” which is an attempt to guilt you into signing up. To decline the offer, you must click “No thanks, I’ll stick to boring recipes.” Many sites use this tactic. Another one says, “No thanks, I’m not into savings,” and another makes you click “No thanks, I like full price.”

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Malina Mithel is with the Federal Trade Commission, which recently held a workshop for industry experts titled “Shining a light on dark patterns.”

“You can bet that many companies test different versions of what exactly to say, to, you know, lift the click lift rate, to make the click lift rate higher, and to decrease the cancellations,” Mithel said. “It’s really important for companies to be more straightforward with their consumers, and when they’re not, they are risking FTC action.”

ABC Mouse, an online learning website, dished out $10 million to settle billing practice issues, including some that made it difficult to cancel and charged users without proper consent.

“Few of us ever actually read the fine print,” said Greg Day, a University of Georgia professor.

Day studies behavioral economics and how dark patterns influence people. He says they can be extremely manipulative.

“I think there’s many ways that we engage in activities where we don’t realize that we’re consenting to a certain activity, and had we known this, we would never actually engage this way,” Day said.

Day says companies spend big money studying our attention span in hopes of making even more money off you.

“I think as consumers understand more and more how perhaps manipulation works, how dark patterns work, I think people really are looking for products that treat them better,” Day said.

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That’s what Debbie Hall is doing.

“You get senior citizens like me, we’re not technically savvy. We’re the ones that get taken advantage of the most because they know we don’t know how to do it,” Hall said.

The FTC says these tricks aren’t new, they’re just seeing a lot more them these days.

If you encounter one, they want you to contact them at www.ftc.gov.

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