how some companies manipulate, mislead consumers online

Experts are warning consumers about online business practices that the Federal Trade Commission and tech insiders call “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 recognize them. It’s hard to protect yourself.”

In fact, dark models are intended to prevent consumers from making informed decisions, instead of tricking them into doing what the company wants them to do.

“There are some cases where it’s an obvious trick,” said Clifford Neuman, director of the Center for Computer Systems Security at the University of Southern California. “There are other cases where one action may just be easier than other actions.”

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Dark patterns can be as simple as pre-checked boxes on websites that commit consumers to unwanted purchases. Disclosures can be as sneaky as companies hiding them in places they know most people won’t look, like fine print or pop-up boxes.

A particularly insidious dark pattern is the inclusion of unexpected fees in the checkout process. By then, the company knows that most people will be committed to the transaction.

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“These are some classic examples of dark patterns that you can often encounter in the digital world that can influence your decision-making in ways you don’t expect,” Liebner said.

Long user agreements are another common dark pattern. Most people will just click OK without reading pages and pages of terms.

“In fact, there were a lot of conditions embedded in those terms if someone had actually read them … there’s no way they would have agreed to them,” Neuman said.

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Unfortunately, dark patterns are not illegal. As long as a company points to a disclosure anywhere on its website, it can claim that customers have been notified.

Consumers can try to protect themselves when they reach the checkout screen for an online purchase by looking carefully for additional fees or pre-ticked boxes. You should also check your credit card statements for unexpected or recurring charges, and after canceling a service, make sure the billing has stopped.


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