FTC report shows rise in sophisticated dark patterns

September 20, 2022

 The Federal Trade Commission has published a report which sets out how organisations use so-called dark patterns that can trick or manipulate consumers into buying products or services or giving up their privacy. The dark pattern tactics described in the report include disguising ads to look like independent content, making it difficult for consumers to cancel subscriptions or chargers, burying key terms or junk fees, or tricking consumers into sharing their data. The report highlights the FTC’s efforts to combat the use of dark patterns in the marketplace and reiterated its commitment to taking action against tactics designed to trick and trap consumers.

According to the FTC, for years, unscrupulous direct-mail and brick-and-mortar retailers have used design tricks and psychological tactics such as pre-checked boxes, hard-to-find and read disclosures, and confusing cancellation policies, to get consumers to give up their money or data. As more commerce has moved online, dark patterns have grown in scale and sophistication, allowing companies to develop complex analytical techniques, collect more personal data, and experiment with dark patterns to exploit the most effective ones.

The report focuses on four common dark pattern tactics:

  • Misleading consumers and disguising ads: These tactics include advertisements designed to look like independent, editorial content; comparison shopping sites that claim to be neutral but really rank companies based on payments; and countdown timers designed to make consumers believe they only have a limited time to purchase a product or service when the offer is not actually time-limited.
  • Making it difficult to cancel subscriptions or charges: Another common dark pattern involves tricking someone into paying for goods or services without consent. For example, deceptive subscription sellers may burden consumers with recurring payments for products and services they never intended to purchase or that they do not wish to continue purchasing.
  • Burying key terms and junk fees: Some dark patterns operate by hiding or obscuring material information from consumers, such as burying key limitations of the product or service in dense terms of service documents that consumers do not see before purchase. This tactic also includes burying “junk fees”. Companies advertise only part of a product’s total price to lure consumers in, and do not mention other mandatory charges until late in the buying process.
  • Tricking consumers in sharing data: These dark patterns are often presented as giving consumers choices about privacy settings or sharing data but are designed to intentionally steer consumers toward the option that gives away the most personal information.
As detailed in the report, the FTC has worked to keep pace with the evolving types of dark patterns used in the marketplace. The Commission has acted against companies for requiring users to navigate a maze of screens to cancel recurring subscriptions, slipping unwanted products into consumers’ online shopping carts without their knowledge, and experimenting with deceptive marketing designs.