A growing number of Americans are making an unsettling discovery while examining their credit card accounts. Embedded in the list of monthly transactions are charges for things they don't remember buying or services they can't recall receiving.
Federal fraud busters and other experts call the ploys behind these nasty surprises “dark patterns.” That term applies to tactics used by online companies, subscription services and even political fundraisers to trick consumers into triggering recurring credit card charges, making unintended purchases or giving up personal information.
These might be items sneaked into your web shopping carts. Or maybe while in the process of buying something online, you were tricked by the software into accepting a more expensive item or a monthly surcharge. Or perhaps a web company used visual fakery like hard-to-see opt-out buttons to deceive you into unintentionally opting in — every month.
Tactics like these are sometimes illegal under a federal law that bans “deceptive practices of any kind,” says Katharine Roller, a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) attorney. But many hide in the law's shadows; there are no bright legal lines saying when type on a web page is too small or a box too hidden to pass from legal to illegal. And online businesses, fundraisers and, yes, crooks know that.
"Dark patterns are surging right now,” Roller says. “They manipulate consumers into spending more than they intended, buying things they don't want or staying subscribed to things they don't need.”
Cracking down on dark patterns is a hot topic among anti-fraud experts. And lawmakers are looking into giving the FTC more explicit authority to regulate them, according to University of Chicago law professor Lior Strahilevitz.
A 2019 study found dark patterns in 11 percent of 11,000 shopping websites. -"That's a conservative estimate,” says lead author Arunesh Mathur, of Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy. He also found them in political emails.
And everyone is at risk. “I've been fooled by them and so have computer experts who study them,” Strahilevitz says.
Lawmakers’ efforts to root out the deception are likely to take awhile. In the meantime, here's how to spot — and avoid — six types of dark patterns.
1. Trick questions
Shopping websites may deploy double negatives or other convoluted wording to confuse you. In a study coauthored by Strahilevitz, half of the participants who chose a subscription service via a series of tricky questions thought they'd rejected it.
Outsmart them: If a question is hard to understand, read it through several times. On rare occasion, it's an innocent case of bad wording. But often it is deliberately confusing. “If you read a question twice and don't understand it, that's your cue to exit,” Strahilevitz says.
2. Fool-the-eye fakery
Visual tricks can nudge you to click a bright red “yes” button instead of a muted gray “no” button, miss important info tucked in the fine print or force you to click through several screens to avoid an unwanted purchase, Mathur says.
Outsmart them: Always read all of the fine print. Enlarge the type size on your computer if needed. And bring a healthy skepticism: Any signs of deceptive or coercive language should have you moving on.
3. Bullying buttons
Mathur found 164 websites that made shoppers click a button that said something like, “No thanks, I'd rather pay full price” or, “I don't want one-day delivery” to decline a purchase. Called “confirm-shaming,” this tactic aims to guilt you into an unwanted purchase, he says.
Outsmart them: Remember, you are in control. Shrug off the psychological tricks and say yes only to what you want, says Kelly Quinn, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
4. “End at midnight” and “just 1 left” blurbs
In Mathur's study, 40 percent of discount countdown timers were fakes — the deal was still available when the timer ended.
Outsmart them: Don't let the fear of missing out force you to make a hasty purchase, he says. Take your time comparing prices and options. For most consumer products or services, sales come and go all the time.
5. Sneaky extras
Mathur found 62 websites that preselected expensive products or pressured shoppers to choose them. Seven snuck extra items into their shopping carts.
Outsmart them: “Check your cart very carefully before you confirm a purchase,” Strahilevitz says. “I've seen subscriptions and donations added."
6. Data grabs
Websites and apps make frequent attempts to acquire info like your cellphone number, address and email. “Personal information is valuable,” Quinn says. “Companies sell it and use it to target ads at you.”
Outsmart them: Give away as little as possible online. Don't provide your phone number for optional discounts or to place an order.
Sari Harrar is a contributing editor to AARP publications who specializes in health and science.