How online retailers trick you into spending more

woman online shopping

Online retailers are using ‘dark patterns’ to deceive you, according to a report from Victorian-based think tank the Consumer Policy Research Centre (CPRC).

It details the methods used to sway shoppers to make choices that benefit businesses but can leave consumers worse off.

The report, titled Duped by Design, highlights 10 dark patterns designed to manipulate buyers into making unintended purchases. 

It found that 83 per cent of Australians experienced one or more negative consequences, such as financial harm or a feeling of being manipulated, as a result.

The 10 dark patterns

So what should you be looking out for? The list includes some that are fairly self-explanatory, such as hidden costs and trick questions, and a few imaginatively named ones, including ‘confirmshaming’ and the ‘Hotel California’.

  1. Hidden costs: These are costs that consumers are unaware of when they begin the process of purchasing something online. They may be forced to pay more for a product than initially perceived via pre-selected ‘add-ons’ being embedded close to the final stage of payment. You might find an example on your food delivery app, which may have something like a ‘service fee’ on top of the cost of the item and the delivery fee. On the Uber Eats app, this fee is defined rather nebulously as being “based on factors such as basket size and helps cover costs related to your order”.
  2. Scarcity cues: While in the process of browsing online, you may see a message that indicates an item might soon be hard to find. Such a message, like “in high demand”, may or may not be accurate. Of course tricks such as this were in use long before the internet came along. Even these days you’ll see a street poster exclaiming, “Tickets selling fast!” If they really are selling fast, why the need to advertise?
  3. Disguised ads: This is advertising disguised as regular content that tricks you into clicking on them. News sites often use this tactic with what looks like the headline of a news article actually linking to an ad or advertorial. Such items might appear under a heading of ‘From Our Sponsors’, styled to look like just another news section.
  4. Trick question: Online questions can often use confusing language, making it difficult to clearly know how to opt in or opt out of an option or service. One example might be a checkbox alongside: “Would you prefer not to receive promotional emails from us?”
  5. Activity notifications: Notifications telling you what other people are doing on the website or app are common. An example might be, “Another person who bought this item also bought this!”
  6. Confirmshaming: This practice adopts language suggesting the choice you are making is stupid or shameful, such as selecting from two options such as, “Yes, sign me up for 10 per cent discount” and “No thanks, I like paying more”.
  7. Hotel California (forced continuity): This term is borrowed from the classic Eagles song, focusing on the line, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” It refers to the difficulty, and occasionally near impossibility, of cancelling an online subscription, especially after a free trial. A certain subscription television service springs to mind here.
  8. False hierarchy: A website may enlarge or highlight a design or colour of an item, purely because it is in its interest to sell more of that model.
  9. Redirection/nagging: Some sites continuously move away from the task that a consumer is wanting to complete by interrupting with, for example, pop-up invitations to another subscription service.
  10. Data grab: And of course, most businesses will want to get as much information out of you as possible. Even if you are just signing up for a trial or entering an online competition, you’ll likely be asked for more details than are really needed so you can be bombarded with all sorts of barely related advertising at a later stage.

According to Chandni Gupta, the CPRC’s digital policy director, while many of these tactics may be damaging and unjust, they “either aren’t illegal or don’t quite meet the threshold of current consumer protections”. 

Writing for CHOICE, Ms Gupti is encouraging those who see dark patterns being used to report the tactics via an online form.

In any case, the next time you shop online, it might pay to look out for these dark patterns and think twice before finalising your purchase.

Have you been tricked by online dark patterns? Do you check for hidden fees before finalising an online purchase? Why not share your experience and thoughts in the comments section below?

Also read: Eight tips to save money when shopping online

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

2 Comments

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  1. My bank is currently investigating a classic “Hotel California” scam from one of these “free trial” sites. I have 2 cases pending action by my bank and have reported both to the link in this article.

    The worst part of these scams (YES, they really ARE scams) is that they’re pretty much undetectable in the web advertising used, which makes the whole act unlawful. Deliberately misleading advertising or the nonexistence of an “out” option is unlawful in most jurisdictions worldwide; just so you’re aware.

    The thing to remember here is that although something might be “legal,” it may well not be lawful, and vice-versa.

    • A few years ago I got caught with one of these. I got most of the money back after lodging a claim with Mastercard/Bank. It taught me to shy away from most web advertising and if I do join anything to carefully read all the terms and conditions before joining and also to be very careful about clicking on any options and to unclick any that are already ticked.
      I have never been caught out again and never want to be as most are based overseas where Aussie laws don’t apply.

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