Guilt trips and basket sneaking: How to spot ecommerce dark patterns


So-called dark patterns used on e-commerce platforms, like basket sneaking or creating a false sense of urgency, are designed to subtly influence our choices, tricking us into buying things we didn't want. — Photo: Christin Klose/dpa

BERLIN: Ecommerce platforms often resort to so-called dark patterns, subtle manipulative design elements or features designed to influence our decision-making, allowing them to get their hands on our personal data, sell us more or trick us into subscriptions and contracts.

In the European Union, the EU Digital Services Act has prohibited large online platforms from exploiting human behavioural or perceptual patterns through misleading design tricks since August 2023. But large online platforms from the US and China are still not complying, as shown by a study from the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv).

Here are some tips from the vzbv on how to protect yourself against some of the most common dark patterns when shopping online.

Don't get distracted

Don't be too hasty when clicking on buttons that pop up in a different colour. Always read carefully and check what options you have. Don't just skim through forms and checkboxes - take the time to read them carefully.

Don't give in to 'only two left' pressure

A popular way of pressuring people into making a purchase are warnings telling buyers that there are "only few seats left" or that a certain number of other people is currently also looking at that item.

Don't let that influence your decision, as such warnings – usually referring to the amount of tickets or items left at a particular price, not the actual number - tend to create a sense of urgency that is misleading.

A final look at the basket

Before completing your order, make sure you take a close look at all the items in your basket so you're only buying what you were looking for. Also known as "basket-sneaking," some companies add additional products, service fees, a donation or insurance without your consent right before checkout.

Don't let them guilt-trip you

When unsubscribing from a newsletter, some companies try to guilt-trip us into sticking around after all, asking us to give a reason for why we want to unsubscribe, including "I don't want to be updated on this great cause" or "I'm not interested in your amazing product."

Complain!

If you've had a bad experience with dark patterns on an ecommerce platform, complain to the company and try to get advice from a consumer protection organization if possible. Having a look around online to learn about the experiences of other shoppers can help to avoid dubious platforms in the first place. – dpa

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