FTC Warns of More ‘Dark Patterns’ on Consumer Websites  

The use of these deceptive design practices is on the rise, says a new FTC report that shows what to watch out for.

Consumers aren’t as aware as they should be of “dark patterns” — manipulative design practices staring them in the face on commonly visited websites. Dark patterns aim to trick users, steal their data and get them to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make. The problem is becoming increasingly common, notes a new report the Federal Trade Commission released in September 2022. Many consumers don’t realize they’re being misled and those who do often don’t report it.

The FTC report, “Bringing Dark Patterns to Light,” describes how dark patterns trick people and shows common patterns. Its examples of different kinds of dark patterns come from recent FTC enforcement actions and insights provided by participants in an FTC workshop on the topic. Speakers at the workshop, held last year, included consumer advocates, members of Congress, researchers, legal experts and other industry professionals.

“Dark patterns often take advantage of consumers’ cognitive biases to steer their conduct or delay access to information needed to make fully informed decisions,” the report says.

In total, 1,818 instances of dark patterns were found among 11,000 shopping websites analyzed by Princeton University researchers in 2019. State attorneys general sued Google on “dark patterns” claims earlier this year.

Fake news

Some dark patterns focus on inducing false beliefs, notes the FTC report. For example, ads may be deceptively formatted to look like independent news content. Consumers then mistakenly believe this content is impartial and not tied to advertisers. Advertisers may further manipulate consumers by falsely noting these ads are coming from well-known news outlets, says the report.

Loan-comparison website LendEDU was accused of using a false-belief dark pattern. It misled consumers to believe that its website objectively ranked loan products although it had offered higher rankings to companies that paid more for placement on its website, said the FTC. The FTC, which settled with LendEDU in 2020, also alleged the company touted fake positive reviews of its website.

Other dark patterns

Other kinds dark patterns companies use, according the FTC, are:

  • Hiding fees and charges until late in the buying process.
  • Offering a free trial that leads to a recurring subscription charge.
  • Having processes that make it hard to cancel a subscription.
  • Collecting personal information even if they don’t need it to complete a transaction.

Consumers will likely see different types of dark patterns depending on the types of websites or apps they frequently use, the FTC notes. Studies have found some dark patterns are more common in mobile apps than on websites,  the FTC adds.

The term “dark pattern” was coined by Harry Brignull, a user-experience consultant with a Ph.D. in cognitive science.

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