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What’s a Dark Pattern and Has It Already Cost You Money?

If you’ve ever had to call to cancel a subscription you signed up for online in seconds, uncheck a preselected agreement to receive ads in the mail or been tricked into upgrading to a premium economy ticket, you’ve been the victim of a dark pattern.Dark patterns – or tricky web design practices meant to manipulate users into buying products or sharing information – are becoming more and more prevalent, according to a 2022 report by the Federal Trade Commission. Whether it’s a difficult-to-cancel subscription or hidden costs, these UX designs are not illegal, but they can cost you money if you don’t know how to outsmart them.“The term dark pattern is a design feature that subtly encourages users to perform a specific action, usually using features built into digital design interfaces,” Sarah Harding, a freelance UX designer based in Chicago, said in an email.According to Harding, the term “dark” is used to describe these practices because they have manipulative – if not malicious – intent. These strategies are specifically designed to benefit the company and earn it money by deceiving users.Because these patterns are built directly into the apps and websites you use daily, you might not even notice them.“Effective and good dark patterns incline users to pay more for services or a product (perhaps they think they are getting a deal), agree to terms and conditions, make decisions based on limited information, or agree to receive company communications or opt in to marketing schemes indirectly,” Harding said.Dark patterns typically have the goal of getting one of two things from a user – private information or money. While you certainly want to be careful about with whom you share your data, anyone managing a budget should pay careful attention to patterns that cost them money.“The trick that I definitely see the most often – and also the one that annoys me the most – is making canceling a service as difficult as possible,” Ann Martin, director of operations at CreditDonkey, said in an email. “One of the simplest ways to keep your customers subscribed to your service for another month is to force them to use a more involved communication tool to get the job done. Don’t let them use an online form; make them call on the phone, only during business hours,” she added.Signing up for a monthly subscription is easy, but canceling it is hard, and companies bank on this fact when setting up procedures.Harding says other dark patterns that could be costing you, including:Hidden costs during the checkout process, like shipping fees, that aren’t clearly disclosed upfront. Sneaking items into your basket or automatically adding extras like donations into a user’s shopping card without explicit consent. Misdirection, or using design elements that confuse shoppers into opting for a more expensive product or plan. Confirm shaming, or the practice of using shaming language to persuade users to make a particular choice. This could mean having to select a “no, I don’t want to save money” pop-up to opt out of spending. Bait and switch practices, or advertising a lower priced product only to reveal hidden limitations or additional costs after you’ve gone through the purchase process. Just think of the basic economy flight you chose only to realize a carry-on bag wasn’t included and would require an extra fee, or the free shipping that you only qualify for with over $100 in spending. All of these strategies are not inconvenient enough that shoppers don’t make the purchase, putting a bit more in the store’s pocket.Dark patterns are strategic; they leverage psychology to get you to spend more. So, how can you avoid doing so and keep your spending plan intact? Financial experts advise using mindful shopping habits to identify these dark patterns and circumvent them before they cost you money in the first place.“A few mindful shopping habits can help take the power back in your hands,” Andy Chang, founder and CEO of The Credit Review, said in an email.“First, always review your cart carefully before purchasing, and resist the temptation to complete ‘limited time’ offers. Building a ‘cooling off’ waiting period into your shopping can also cut down on impulsive purchases,” Chang said.He also recommended setting reminders for your subscription periods so you can have a built in time to evaluate whether it’s still working for you. That way, you don’t end up keeping a subscription that costs you money just because it is inconvenient to cancel.“If cancellation turns out to be a challenge, remember you have the right to dispute seemingly unfair practices through your bank or credit card company,” he said.