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Media > Newsletters > Consumer Advocate > October 2023 > Beware of “dark patterns” on the internet

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Beware of “dark patterns” on the internet

Have you ever bought something you thought was a one-time purchase, only to later notice recurring charges totaling much more than what you initially paid?

The Consumer Protection Section of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office cautions Ohioans about digital “dark patterns,” tactics that some companies use to sign you up for a subscription product or service you never intended to buy. Worse, sometimes these unintended purchases can be difficult to cancel.

Digital dark patterns manipulate online users into taking action they didn’t intend to take. According to an article from Wired magazine, dark patterns also are used to make it difficult to unsubscribe to a company’s services or emails.

“When you want to unsubscribe from a mailing list but the ‘Unsubscribe’ button is tiny, low-contrast and buried in paragraphs of text at the bottom of an email,” the article says, “it’s a strong sign the company is putting up subtle roadblocks between you and cancellation.”

In June 2023, the Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon for allegedly using dark patterns to unlawfully sign consumers up for Prime subscriptions without their consent, charging those customers and then making it difficult to unenroll.

The suit maintains that the online shopping superstore’s dark patterns made cancellation difficult by requiring consumers to hunt for the right place to cancel online and then click through complicated extra pages.

“Often,” the suit says, “consumers would call Amazon’s customer service, only to be referred back to the website to cancel, making the process even more frustrating.”

To steer clear of unwanted charges while shopping online, the FTC and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office recommend that you:
  • Monitor what goes into your online shopping cart. Be sure to look closely for any wording or fine print that might enroll you into a subscription service. Before finalizing an online transaction, be sure to review your entire order. Look for anything that has been added that you don’t want, and remove it from the order.
  • Look for boxes that might be pre-checked to enroll you in a subscription service unless you uncheck the box.
  • Double-check the order confirmation you receive by email from the company. If there is an item or subscription service that you didn’t intend to sign up for, immediately contact the company to cancel and secure a refund. Request that you receive written confirmation of your cancellation, and save it in case you need documentation later. If the company says you can keep the subscription, ask to cancel it and/or ask when the subscription is up for renewal so you can be sure it's canceled ahead of that date.
  • Carefully review your bank statements and credit-card-billing statements to ensure that you’re not being charged for subscriptions you don’t want. If necessary, dispute any unwanted charges with your credit- or debit-card company – especially if you’ve tried to cancel and the company has not honored the cancellation.
  • Look for any fine print about “auto renewals.” If you unwittingly enroll in an automatic renewal, typically you will continue to see charges unless or until you cancel. Sometimes auto renewals can be far off, such as one that bills a year after the “purchase.”
Ohioans who suspect unfair or deceptive business practices should contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at or 800-282-0515.