A growing number of online consumers are falling prey to subscription-based purchases without their consent or facing difficulties in canceling purchases due to the prevalence of deceptive web designs referred to as "dark patterns."
The tricks employed to coax consumers into parting with their money include misleading countdowns that create a spurious sense of urgency by falsely declaring that only a limited quantity of a sought-after item remains in stock. In other cases, some websites preselect a subscription option when users log in, leading to unintended financial commitments.
Elderly individuals, who are often less familiar with digital technology, tend to be a particular target for unscrupulous online retailers. These retailers manipulate them into making purchases and commitments they might otherwise avoid, blurring the line between clever marketing and outright deception.
One woman in her 70s who sought help from a consumer affairs center in the Kansai western Japan region in July said she had purchased what she thought was a 'trial' cleansing foam but had then received a second, unwanted delivery of the same product.
When she tried to contact the business operator, her calls went unanswered, and an automated message directed her to cancel online. However, she was left bewildered and unable to navigate the process.
According to the 2023 edition of the government-issued Consumer White Paper, there were a record 75,478 consumer affairs consultations related to subscription purchases in 2022, with a significant increase in cases linked to online issues, especially among the elderly.
A Consumer Affairs Agency analysis revealed that elderly individuals are less likely to get their information from multiple websites or to check if they are making purchases on a subscription basis.
An analyst at the agency pointed out, "Compared with the younger generation, elderly people are less digitally literate, which can lead to trouble."
The term "dark patterns" was coined in 2010 by Harry Brignull, a British-based user experience designer. On his website Deceptive Patterns, he says: 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." The phenomenon has also been seen on many Japanese online shopping sites and apps in recent years.
The lab of Katie Seaborn, associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, analyzed 200 popular mobile apps for shopping, gaming and other activities in Japan. It found that more than 90 percent of them employ dark patterns, utilizing what it terms "linguistic dead-ends," where the language used "makes it very difficult for the user to understand crucial functionality" on the site.
Examples highlighted in the research include being unable to log out or delete an account within an app, the inability to unsubscribe from newsletters through the app, constant display of cookies without the option to turn them off, and special countdown offers.
A panel of Japanese experts in July pointed out that problems caused by dark patterns "have become prevalent in digital transactions" in recent years.
In Japan, the revised Specified Commercial Transactions Law, which was enacted in June 2021, prohibits misleading labeling that might trick consumers into believing a purchase is not subscription-based, and mandates the disclosure of specific transaction details at the time of online purchases. But full-fledged legislation has not yet been put in place.
In contrast, the European Union, under the 2002 Digital Services Act, has banned web designs that deceive consumers, and the U.S. state of California has introduced similar regulations.
Atsushi Hasegawa, professor at Musashino Art University and head of Tokyo-based Concent Inc., a web design company that investigates dark patterns, explained that they work by "exploiting people's sensory and intuitive judgments."
Hasegawa said that although laws and regulations are necessary, their effectiveness has limits. "First of all, we want consumers to be aware of these dark patterns. By taking a breath and thinking before purchasing, they can protect themselves," he stressed.