Buyer beware! How online stores trick you into buying more

There’s a reason you fall into the rabbit hole of online shopping. A new study breaks down a few wily ways digital retailers sucker shoppers into spending more and committing to hidden costs.

Websites, it turns out, employ a series of “dark patterns” meant to mislead or coerce online shoppers into making a decision that isn’t always in their benefit, it says.

You may not know that term, but you’ve certainly encountered them online — surprise fees at checkout, false scarcity, clicking away that pop-up by admitting no, you don’t want a great deal.

These patterns can cause headaches in users’ inboxes and dents in their wallets. But in their more harmful iterations, these misleading tactics could cause users to hand over personal data under the guise of something benign.

In an analysis of 53,000 product pages on 11,000 online stores, researchers from Princeton University and the University of Chicago found at least one instance on 11% of the most popular websites. Most of them were deceptive, covert or hid information.

Researchers broke down dark patterns into seven categories. They’re familiar to anybody who’s shopped online.


These are the messages that hide information that, if you’d known about up front, you probably wouldn’t agree to.

For example, that extra $15 that suddenly landed in your shopping bag? That’s the sneaking method of hidden costs. Many online retailers delay the flurry of additional charges, like taxes and shipping/handling costs, until the very last step of the check-out process so they land like an unwelcome surprise.

At that step in the process, most users have already committed to purchasing the item. The hidden costs, for some, are not a dealbreaker, but an extra fee they’re resigned to pay.


Ever stumble onto a website for a casual scan only to be met by an ominous countdown clock, ticking off the seconds left of a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime sale?

Those are sometimes fake, the researchers said.

A false sense of urgency is a deceptive way to push shoppers into buying something so they won’t miss “limited-time” lower prices. But, as the researchers point out, these countdowns often reset when users refresh the page. Even after a few days or weeks, those same sales are still available.


These methods steer users toward or away a certain choice with coded language or obstructive visuals.

Take the dreaded subscription pop-up offer: If the “Yes, I would LOVE to subscribe” option is contrasted with a smaller-text, “No thanks, I don’t like gourmet cooking tips straight to my inbox” or “I don’t enjoy great deals on luxury fashion,” you’ve encountered what the researchers call confirmshaming.

If you get the same pop-up offer and can’t even find the exit button because it’s so small and virtually invisible, you’ve been bamboozled by visual interference.

Social proof

Some websites share a steady stream of customers’ recent purchases while users scan the site, in a bid to convince the current shopper to join their peers and buy.

The details in these notifications are fairly vague — “Ashley from Tampa, Florida, just bought size small distressed boyfriend jeans” — and flash constantly to make it seem as though the purchases are occurring incessantly while you, the shopper, are merely browsing.

Websites manipulate reviews to the same effect: Researchers found the same positive testimony for a product on two different sites, though the name of the reviewer had changed.


Another deceptive tool to steer shoppers into buying their product, websites may show that items have limited availability or are in high-demand — “250 other users are looking at this product!” or “Added to 500 people’s carts” — so users think if they don’t buy a product now, it could go out of stock soon.

The accuracy of these low-stock counters is questionable, but they can trigger an impulse-buy response in shoppers, the study said.


Ever sign up for a recurring subscription (or get tricked into it) that seemed impossible to cancel? That’s on purpose, too.

Obstruction methods make it harder to cancel those choices that seemed so easy to make. Websites often don’t disclose that canceling a subscription or membership isn’t simple, even if they’re marketed as able to cancel anytime.

Forced action

Some websites lock users out unless they agree to terms and conditions or sign up for access. This is what the team calls “forced action,” when shoppers can’t complete a task without handing over some personal information. Websites learn more about shoppers this way than they would have consented to otherwise.

What’s to be done?

Marshini Chetty, the paper’s co-author and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Chicago, said the team discussed their findings with the Federal Trade Commission and sponsors of the Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act, a bipartisan bill proposed to ban to online dark patterns.

“Often, it’s trying to get the user to make a decision that they may not have made if they were otherwise fully informed. On the internet, they could be affecting thousands or millions of people, and we don’t really fully understand what their impact is on decision-making,” Chetty said.

As for shoppers, knowledge is power. And if you see a countdown clock or extra fees in your shopping cart, you might think twice before you buy.