Dark Patterns Scam Internet Users

By Robert L. Cain, Copyright 2023, Cain Publications, Inc.

Crime does pay. Credit Karma made millions with their scam for which the Federal Trade Commission fined them $3 million, lunch money to Credit Karma. They garnered 2500 data points from each unsuspecting consumer who answered their ad that claimed they were pre-approved for a credit card. Those data points will provide a never-ending supply of targets for their and other companies’ advertising when they sell the information.

Credit Karma, owned by Intuit, the company that sells Turbo Tax and QuickBooks, ran ads that claimed readers were pre-approved for a credit card, and all they had to do was fill out the form. Then, one-third of these unwary souls got turned down for credit, wasting their time and putting a hit on their credit report because of “hard inquiries.”  Every time a company checks a consumer for credit, it dings his or her credit report, lowering the credit score, further damaging someone’s already poor credit, making it even more difficult to get any kind of credit.

That’s just one example of what are called “dark patterns,” but can be more familiarly known as “sleaziness” at best and “illegal” at worst. Coming in several forms, wired.com explains it as “ploys to trick you into spending money, or make it nearly impossible to unsubscribe.”  The term dark patterns used first by User Experience (UX) specialist Harry Brignull, explains how software can trick a user into doing things they had no intention of doing when they used the software or “discouraging behavior that’s bad for the company,” wrote wired.com.

Some of the more common forms of deception involve ads disguised as content. You’ve no doubt come across at least one of those. When it happens to me, I immediately click out of the site and never go back, but enough people don’t follow my predilection and actually read the ad.

Another deception, trick subscriptions sneak or misdirect a user to think they are buying one thing, but the website has hidden a legal stipulation that they are signing up for a recurring subscription. Once signed up, the service continues without the user knowing it’s there, having never been sent emails or notifications that they are paying for it, and payments continue until the unaware user cancels, but good luck canceling. The website that charged their credit card makes it difficult to cancel. More about that below.

One example of the trick subscription comes from the design tool Figma, owned by Adobe. Designed to allow work sharing, if the user selects “can edit” rather than “can view,” Figma creates a new monthly subscription for the person to whom the document is sent paid for by the user who sent it. Unbeknownst to that user, his or her  credit card gets charged for the subscription. Nowhere does Figma mention that charge. Of course, complaints to social media result, but apparently Figma doesn’t care a whit. Yes, it is illegal under ROSCA 4,15 USC §8401 and §8403, but so far Figma and Adobe have escaped prosecution.

Another example, lawdepot.com charged one customer in England £83.88 after clicking for the offered seven-day trial. Lawdepot moved the “free trial” offer to the “Prepaid for One Year” option. Sleazy, of course, illegal, probably, again under ROSCA 4,15 USC §8401 and §8403

Movehub.com lies “about the prices they quote you and yes there are Hidden Fees. I spent $5000 [in] extra in hidden fees,” wrote David Dobrinskiy after he had been bamboozled by movehub’s website. A GG wrote, “Deceiving forms and landing page. They should say right away that no quotation will be given on the spot, instead of collecting quite a bit of personal and non-relevant to the offer data.” That’s similar to Credit Karma’s shtick where they collect information they can sell to advertisers.

Have you ever tried to unsubscribe to something your ordered on line? When you try to unsubscribe to SamCart, good luck. Will Phillips complained that SamCart “forces you to watch a video to cancel” and then adds an additional confirmation step after that. That’s an easier one than the sites that bury the unsubscribe option at the bottom of the page in tiny print often of a color similar to the background.  Companies count on people delaying or even giving up trying to unsubscribe. Explains Harry Brignull, “They are going to get around to it eventually, but if they might stay for an extra 10 percent of the time, or 20 percent, the accounts might live just a little bit longer. And if you’re doing that en masse for hundreds of thousands of people, that translates to enormous amounts of money, for people who are going to leave anyway.”

Trick wording misleads a user into taking an action by using confusing or misleading language. For example, from 2010 to 2013, Ryanair used deceptive wording dark pattern. During the flight booking process, Ryanair said,  “Please select a country of residence” written prominently on a dropdown menu. Reading that on its own, users were likely to just select their country of residence from the dropdown and continue with their booking process, unwarily purchasing travel insurance.

For a user to choose not to purchase travel insurance, they were required to open the dropdown and scroll down to the label “No travel insurance required,” nonsensically listed between two countries: Latvia and Lithuania. Ryanair combined trick wording with the visual interference deceptive pattern to confuse and misdirect users.

Fake reviews have already come to the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. It wrote on its website, “The rise of social media has blurred the line between authentic content and advertising, leading to an explosion in deceptive endorsements across the marketplace. Fake online reviews and other deceptive endorsements often tout products throughout the online world.” The FTC is now using its Penalty Offense Authority to “remind advertisers of the law and deter them from breaking it.” Even so, fake reviews litter the online world. The Better Business Bureau lists several ways to spot a fake review such as misspellings, grammar errors, and identical wording across reviews, all of which I know I have seen as have you, I am sure.

Companies’ priorities differ from a goal of serving the best interests of the people using their app or website. When they create an app or website, they do it to make money, and apparently making money involves using dark patterns and not serving their users ethically or legally.

Written for Zip Reports where they do employment and rental screening. Contact Robert L. Cain at bob@cainpublications.com

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