Dark patterns

If you've ever felt as though you were giving more time, money or personal data than you were comfortable with while using an e-commerce app or website, you may have fallen for dark commercial patterns. This page will help you better understand dark patterns and learn how to spot them next time you're navigating through your favourite applications (apps) or websites.

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What are dark patterns?

Dark patterns are a type of web or app design that can be used to influence your decision making when you are using an app or navigating through a website.

The apps and websites you use are carefully created to provide the best user experience possible. However, some of these pages may also be designed with the goal of selling you products or service you didn’t visit the website to buy. They might be set up to get you to give up your time, privacy or personal information and they might be designed in a way that is manipulative or deceptive in order to achieve this.  

Examples of dark patterns to look out for may include:

  • Intentionally making it difficult to cancel a service
  • Automatic opt-ins for which you have to manually opt-out (look for pre-checked boxes)
  • Adding non-optional charges to a transaction at its final stage (also known as drip pricing)
  • Using emotive or misleading language to encourage a specific behaviour
  • Creating a false sense of urgency to encourage an impulse purchase

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlights seven categories of dark patterns. To view examples of the most common dark patterns you'll likely come across on the web, visit our Types of dark patterns web page. 

Spotting dark patterns and protecting yourself from them

Dark patterns may be tricky to spot as they are designed to seamlessly fit into an app or website’s architecture. Since the goal of dark patterns is to get you to give up your time, money or personal data, it’s important to remain vigilant and be mindful that these interfaces are built to influence your decision-making by encouraging you to:

  • Purchase more of, or continue to purchase, a good or service
  • Spend more money on a purchase than desired
  • Give up more personal information than required

You can take steps to decrease your chances of falling for dark patterns. Next time you are shopping online or using an application to purchase a product or a service, use these tips to protect yourself:

  • Check your order summary for additional fees before completing the purchase
  • Be aware of bright colours and bold fonts. Some web or app designers will use colours and fonts to deter you from one behaviour and encourage another. For example, the “remove from basket” button might be grey, but the “complete your purchase” button is bright green.
  • Read the fine print. Check for automatic opt-ins, subscriptions, and renewals.
  • Educate yourself and stay alert! The more you know about the kind of tricks that can be used to influence your behaviour, the less likely you are to fall victim to them.

Remember: Until you've clicked “buy” or “subscribe” you are allowed to change your mind! If you felt pressured to add items to your cart, to provide personal information, or if the final price doesn't look quite right, you can choose not to complete the transaction.

If you have already completed the transaction and later realized that you may have fallen victim to dark patterns, there are actions you can take to regain control:

  • Review the business' cancellation policy. Some online businesses allow you to cancel your purchase without penalty for a specific amount of time after completing the transaction. Check their website or your electronic receipt for the details.
  • Clearly communicate your wish to cancel a subscription. Some businesses may offer you discounts or incentives to prevent you from cancelling your subscription. Do not hesitate to assert yourself and clearly state that you no longer wish to receive the service.
    • Tip: Consider submitting your cancellation request in writing, rather than over the phone. It will make it easier for you to communicate your wishes without feeling pressured to accept an alternative offer. It will also limit the possibility of the business misinterpreting your request. 
  • Determine whether you can request a refund or price adjustment. If the business has no clear cancellation policy, you can contact their customer service department (typically online, by email or by phone) to request a refund or price adjustment. Be sure to provide the customer service agent with a detailed description of why you are seeking a refund or price adjustment (e.g., you signed up for a service unknowingly, your subscription automatically renewed without your knowledge, etc.). Learn more about obtaining a refund.   

Reporting unfair or deceptive business practices

Some dark patterns might be considered an unfair or deceptive business practice because of the way they cause financial harm or prevent you from making an informed decision. If you believe that you have been misled or deceived as a result of dark patterns, report it!

In some, but not all cases, the dark patterns you encounter might qualify as false or misleading representations and deceptive marketing practices as defined in the Competition Act. The Competition Bureau is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the Competition Act and you can learn more about the false or misleading representations and deceptive marketing practices under the Competition Act on the Bureau's website. In some cases, it might be appropriate to file a complaint with the Competition Bureau.

Most provinces and territories have laws that protect consumers from unfair or deceptive business practices. To file a complaint against a business, contact your provincial or territorial consumer affairs office or file a report with your local Better Business Bureau (BBB).

You can also report deceptive or misleading claims, statements, illustrations or representations in advertising to Advertising Standards Canada, a not-for-profit that ensures truthful, fair and accurate advertising in Canada.

If you believe that the dark patterns you have encountered have passed the point of sales tactics and have entered the realm of scams or fraud, you can contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre to report it.