How to spot the ‘dark patterns’ websites use to trick us into buying

MAINZ: You buy something cheap and seemingly innocuous like an ebook with tips on nutrition or dog training.

Then when your next bank statement arrives you discover that you’ve unwittingly signed up for a monthly subscription.

The way into the subscription trap was in the website’s small print, well hidden by the bright colors and distracting buttons.

This is what’s known as a dark pattern: Attempts to influence a consumer’s decision through psychological tricks or manipulative design elements.

Beware cookie banners

“It started with cookie banners,” says Jennifer Kaiser, Digital and Consumer Law Officer with the Rhineland-Palatinate Consumer Center in Germany.

The center is receiving more and more complaints from consumers about the obtrusive and often confusing windows through which privacy settings are set when you visit a new website.

People who can no longer find a way out of the subscription trap are coming forward, Kaiser says. Dark patterns aim to confuse consumers.

For example, companies or retailers hide customer service contact details or information on cancellation deep inside menus.

What’s clear is that dark patterns are ubiquitous. “Every second cookie banner in Germany contains dark patterns,” says Peter Hense, an IT and data protection lawyer.

Don’t be pushed around

“Some companies cheekily claim that you have agreed,” just because the consumer accidentally clicked on a certain option, Hense says. But that doesn’t necessarily hold up in court.

Others try to make customers believe that no revocation is possible, says consumer advocate Kaiser. To persuade customers to behave in a certain way, website providers use various tricks. Cookie banners are just one example.

“The more privacy-friendly alternative tends to be placed peripherally and visually inconspicuously,” explains Professor Frank Kargl of the University of Ulm in Germany.

And those who don’t want to share their usage data when surfing a site have to fight their way through umpteen checkboxes and subpages to manually deselect all the options. Many don’t even try and just accept all cookies.

So the banners are designed to exploit human behaviour. Those who want to get to a page quickly are more likely to click on the preselected option in what seems like an irrelevant dialogue box so as not to be held up, Kargl says.

Other tricks to look out for

Sometimes shortly before the payment process, an item suddenly appears in the shopping cart that the buyer didn’t even put there.

Or certain options, such as for taking out travel insurance when booking a flight, are already preselected.

Time pressure is another technique to get you to buy something fast. “Sometimes the impression of urgency is created,” Kargl says.

For example, there may be a countdown running out or an accommodation booking website may indicate in red lettering that there’s only one room still available.

Or users are told that if they don’t fill in all the fields they won’t get the optimal service.

The problem is that many of these practices are legal and fall under the category of “marketing tools”, Kaiser says.

Think before you click

To avoid falling for these website tricks, consumers need to be aware of them first and foremost. Examples of dark patterns and the websites that use them can easily be found using search engines.

Otherwise, the main thing is to pay attention. Don’t click on buttons too quickly, check the wording carefully, and carefully check the shopping cart and the total cost before buying a product.

After all, dark patterns only work if they stay in the dark. – dpa