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Ever try to cancel a subscription online? It’s a challenge. Often, you go through unnecessary questions like “are you sure you want to unsubscribe?” Because people who are about to cancel their membership online hadn’t thought about the decision beforehand! I remember trying to unsubscribe from an online service and being forced to call the company to cancel my membership. Funny, they were comfortable taking my money and allowing me to subscribe online; that process was easy. Similarly, my wife’s grandmother (94-years-old) recently tried to unsubscribe to a web-based subscription, but the process was complicated and consequently she gave up. Can’t say I blame someone who uses the web limitedly for getting frustrated with a never-ending internet maze.

Sadly, these practices are pervasive online. Often, companies use “dark patterns” to make it difficult for customers to cancel their subscriptions. According to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staff report, dark patterns are, “design practices that trick or manipulate users into making choices they would not otherwise have made and that may cause harm.”

A William and Mary Business Law Review article written by Carter McCants entitled, “Canceling Difficult Cancellation: An Analysis of Recent Regulatory Efforts to Make Canceling Subscriptions Easier,” noted between 2017 and 2019, the Better Business Bureau in the United States and Canada reported over 50,000 complaints regarding subscription based free trials. Businesses use dark patterns to sign people up for free trials. However, as soon as the trial ended, the responsibility was on the consumer to cancel the subscription or be charged. Overall, this cost consumers more than $1.4 billion.

In October 2021, in response to dark patterns, the FTC put out a new enforcement policy statement requiring subscription-based service providers to make cancellation mechanisms as easy to use as signing up for the service. In addition, the FTC pursued legal remedies against businesses it believes utilize dark patterns. For example, in June the FTC filed a suit against Amazon, alleging it used dark patterns in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. An FTC release stated:

“In a complaint filed today, the FTC charges that Amazon has knowingly duped millions of consumers into unknowingly enrolling in Amazon Prime. Specifically, Amazon used manipulative, coercive, or deceptive user-interface designs known as ‘dark patterns’ to trick consumers into enrolling in automatically-renewing Prime subscriptions.

Amazon also knowingly complicated the cancellation process for Prime subscribers who sought to end their membership. The primary purpose of its Prime cancellation process was not to enable subscribers to cancel, but to stop them. Amazon leadership slowed or rejected changes that would’ve made it easier for users to cancel Prime because those changes adversely affected Amazon’s bottom line…

Consumers who attempted to cancel Prime were faced with multiple steps to actually accomplish the task of cancelling, according to the complaint. Consumers had to first locate the cancellation flow, which Amazon made difficult. Once they located the cancellation flow, they were redirected to multiple pages that presented several offers to continue the subscription at a discounted price, to simply turn off the auto-renew feature, or to decide not to cancel. Only after clicking through these pages could consumers finally cancel the service.”

Furthermore, in response to the litigation, the FTC published an article called, “Were you charged for Amazon Prime without your permission? outlining best practices for online shopping.

Dark patterns can be particularly problematic for seniors who might not be as tech savvy as younger people. For example, the FTC settled a case initiated in December 2020 with The FTC reported, “According to the complaint, the company falsely advised consumers that by joining its program they could make a substantial income without a lot of time, money, or experience. The complaint further alleged that the company made it difficult for consumers to cancel their subscriptions. According to the FTC, consumers lost more than $197 million in subscription fees for defendants’ services. Those consumers included retirees, older adults, and immigrants.”

Consumers shouldn’t have to jump through virtual hoops to cancel subscriptions. If businesses can make it user-friendly to sign up for a subscription, they should make it easy to cancel. Sadly, dark patterns make it easier for older adults who are not as tech proficient to be duped into paying for things they don’t want. Hopefully, through continued government action and greater corporate responsibility this practice will end, and people will get what they pay for.

Evan Carmen, Esq., is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.