How Dark Patterns Can Trick You Into Making Online Money Mistakes

Have you ever found yourself frustrated with a website because you can’t seem to unsubscribe from annoying emails or even cancel money-sucking subscriptions? 

What about seeing your information saved on a site you never explicitly authorized it to use? Sometimes, internet users get tricked into spamming mailing lists, buying things they don’t want and giving away sensitive information. This occurs through dark patterns on the internet. 

In this article

    What are dark patterns?

    The term “dark patterns” was coined by UX specialist Harry Brignull in 2010. According to DarkPatterns.org, dark patterns are “tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.” 

    Dark patterns are used by less-than-ethical web and app designers to nudge you into making mistakes — buying things without intending to do so, or giving away information about yourself that you don’t really want to give away. Those mistakes can lead to spam, debt and identity theft, so there’s a lot of value in being able to recognize them in advance and also knowing what to do if you fall prey to them.

    Dark patterns are incredibly subversive; Princeton University and University of Chicago even co-conducted an internet crawl of 11,000 shopping websites and found 1,818 instances of dark patterns across 1,254 of those websites. 

    6 dark patterns to watch out for

    DarkPatterns.org offers a large collection of dark patterns in use around the internet, but here are six you should particularly be aware of — and you’ve probably already experienced a few of them.

    Trick questions

    This happens when a website asks you a question that’s worded in a way to fool you into giving an answer you didn’t intend. For example, a site might give you a series of checkboxes when signing up, with most of them being “opt-outs” of mailing lists, with one or two sprinkled throughout being “opt ins.” For example, you might read one or two and then just check them all, thinking they’ll get you off mailing lists because the first ones appear that way, but you’re actually signing up for some because of the trick questions on some checkboxes.

    Sneak into basket

    This pattern happens when you’re shopping on a website, but thanks to a minor detail you didn’t notice, an extra item or two is inserted into your shopping cart. If you’re not paying attention when you check out, you end up buying something you didn’t intend.

    The roach motel

    Have you ever signed up for a subscription service, only to find it extremely difficult to get that service cancelled? That’s the roach motel dark pattern, in which a company makes it easy to sign up for a subscription service, but very difficult to actually cancel that service.

    Misdirection or preselection

    This happens when you go to a website and are choosing options, but the website pre-chooses an option for you that’s more expensive or has optional items tied into it, when you just want the basic option. Often, the basic option is hidden and a little hard to find.

    Hidden costs

    You go to a website and claim an offer that seems like a good deal, but when you actually get to your checkout screen, you find that the price is higher or there have been a bunch of additional charges applied, making the deal a lot less appealing. Of course, if you don’t notice, you just paid a lot more than you intended.

    Privacy Zuckering

    This nefarious dark pattern encourages you to share information about yourself because it seems fun. It’s a cute quiz or a forward from a friend that encourages you to reveal things about yourself that can be used to deduce account signups and target you with more specific ads. This pattern often pops up on social media, where seemingly “fun” things passed along among friends nudge you to reveal personal information that can be used for nefarious purposes.

    How to avoid and respond to dark patterns

    Here are some good online tactics you can use to help you avoid dark patterns or respond appropriately if you do fall prey to one.

    1. Double- or triple-check your online shopping cart before you pay

    Whenever you are about to buy anything online, stop for a moment and carefully examine the contents of your shopping cart. Are the items in that cart what you intended to buy? If not, delete some of those items before continuing. This not only prevents some impulse buying but it completely wards off the sneak-into-basket dark pattern.

    2. Use a junk email address for unimportant signups

    Have a second email address that you use to sign up for anything unimportant so that you’re not receiving unwanted spam to your main address. You can simply get a separate email address and use that for many online signups, keeping your main email for the truly meaningful things you want to see while most of the spam goes to your other mailbox.

    3. Use smart identity theft tools

    One big concern with dark patterns is that they can easily lead to identity theft, where an unscrupulous person or business has access to your credit card or banking information. Identity theft tools help you not only avoid identity theft, but also help you recover from those situations.

    To get started, get up to date on the basics of identity theft, as well as these simple steps you can use to keep yourself safe from identity theft.

    4. Sign up for subscriptions only through reliable parties

    If you want to sign up for an online subscription of any kind, try to sign up through the most reliable party available. If you’re able to subscribe through the iOS App Store, Google Play Store or PayPal, use that service, as their account management tools make it nearly effortless to unsubscribe. If you can’t do that, think carefully about whether you need that service or not.

    5. Don’t be shamed by an app or a website’s wording

    It’s an app. It’s a website. It’s a computer program. Don’t feel guilty about anything the website says to you. It’s software trying to hit your emotional buttons. Just walk away and make your decision later. If you ever feel guilty or sad in front of a computer, especially when you’re not communicating directly with a real person you know, just walk away.

    6. Communicate with your credit card company if you can’t cancel an order or service

    If you find that you’ve made a purchase that was misrepresented to you, or you’ve signed up for a subscription that you seem to be unable to unsubscribe from, talk to your credit card issuer. It can help you get rid of that service, often by simply declining charges from that business or canceling the order for you.

    7. Share minimal personal information on social media

    Unless you think there’s tremendous value in sharing information about yourself on social media, avoid doing it. Don’t participate in fun games or other forwards where you offer up lists of things about yourself, like your code name or a quiz about yourself. Those things simply gather information about you, which can be used for crafting very targeted ads or even for identity theft. Just skip over them.

    8. Use good security practices with your online banking and credit card services

    While this doesn’t directly help you avoid dark patterns, it is a good mindset that helps support safer online participation. Your banking, credit card and investment accounts should be as secure as you can make them online, using good passwords and two-factor authentication. If you’re switching financial institutions, choose an online bank or another service that uses two-factor authentication or at least makes it available, along with the other factors you should look at when choosing an online bank. Here are some powerful additional strategies for securing your online financial accounts.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder of The Simple Dollar

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

    Reviewed by

    • Courtney Mihocik
      Courtney Mihocik
      Editor

      Courtney Mihocik is an editor at The Simple Dollar who specializes in insurance, personal finance, and loans. Previously, she wrote and edited for Interest.com, PersonalLoans.org, Ballantyne Magazine, Thread Magazine, The Post, ACRN, The New Political, Columbus Alive and the Institute for International Journalism.