Scam Corner: FTC Ramping Up Enforcement of Illegal Dark Pattern Websites

What do the companies Vonage, Epic Games, and Amazon have in common? All have been fined by the Federal Trade Commission for dark patterns that went afoul of FTC rules against websites that misdirect, or otherwise result in charges for which the consumer did not intend to make.

Image of two computer screens facing each other with a hand coming out of one holding a credit card and a hand coming out of the other holding a paper shopping bag courtesy Mediamodifier on  PixabayThe Voice over IP phone company Vonage made it very easy to sign up for their service, but they made it very difficult to cancel the recurring subscription charge for the service. While signing up was possible and easy on their website, it was not possible to cancel online. Customers were required to call a phone number (buried in small print on the website) in order to cancel, and even after calling were transferred three times before speaking to someone who could cancel the service over the phone.

Epic Games (the company that makes Fortnite) and Amazon were both taken to task for offering free applications, but which contained in-app purchase capability in ways that were not obvious. These were examples of where credit card information was provided for a purchase (Amazon), but the credit card information was passed along to a third party (the app seller) so that they could also charge the card for in-app purchases.

Parents were often surprised to find that their child playing the game had racked up charges for doing things like grabbing a “batch of donuts” or “getting a bar of gold,” not realizing that these elements were being acquired by purchase using real money.

What Are Dark Patterns?

Dark Patterns is the name given to websites who use misleading methods to either get you to purchase something, to make it difficult to cancel a subscription, or to get you to divulge personal information.

Companies that do business online are now required to clearly explain to people what they are buying, make sure they know what they are signing up for, and to make it as easy to cancel as it was to sign up.

Some Other Examples Of Dark Patterns

As I’ve watched websites change over time, I’ve encountered these types of websites. One of the earliest versions of this was a webpage that had a big, easy to click button to continue to purchase, but only a line of small text underneath as a link to not purchase. You may have even encountered a health product site that used these tactics. Commonly they will have a large button to allow you to purchase a trial amount of the product.

It is only in the very small print at the bottom of the page that says that by purchasing a trial amount, you agree to have your card charged every month for a 30-day supply of the product. In one case I was aware of, I could not cancel this subscription for my client via the website. The fine print said I had to write a physical letter and mail it internationally to an address in the U.K.

Lest you think this is limited to websites, the Vizio brand of smart TV’s displayed a privacy policy notice on screens indicating that a data collection element was turned on and said you had to visit the settings to turn it off. There was no opt-out button, only an OK button to remove the pop-up from the screen. In addition, the pop-up disappeared after 60 seconds, so if you were out of the room at the time, you would have never even known that more information would be collected from your viewing choices.

Smartphones are another device where dark patterns are used by having apps indicate they need access to information that they don’t really need to operate and provide service. The messages requesting access often imply that the application won’t work unless settings are changed.

How can you avoid these issues?

When signing up for something, look carefully all the way to the bottom of that page to read the small print of what you are agreeing to. If a web page appears to require moving forward with purchase options, look for an opt-out that is greyed out. It might actually be a live link that is letting you end the purchase process. Learn to spot them and as I reported in a blog article, you can report your findings to the dark web tipline mentioned in that article.

If you feel that you have been scammed by a company by having charges racked up you never intended, subscriptions that you cannot easily get out of, or the misuse of your credit card or debit card information, notify the Federal Trade Commission using their fraud reporting page. If the FTC does end up taking action on a company and receiving a large fine payment from the company, they will often look for consumers who have been harmed and distribute those funds to those consumers.

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