67% of consumers experienced subscription trap: LocalCircles survey

Over 1 in 2 consumers surveyed who bought something via app or software platforms said they experienced dark patterns like subscription trap, drip pricing and bait and switch, said the survey

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Peerzada Abrar Bengaluru

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About 67 per cent of consumers surveyed who bought a product or a service via an app or software-as-a-service platforms said that it often turned out to be a subscription trap, according to a report by community platform LocalCircles. Around 71 per cent of consumers surveyed experienced hidden charges associated with purchases, which were not presented upfront but only later when they were making the payment.

The survey received over 44,000 responses from users of app or software subscription services located in 331 districts of India.

The findings are related to “dark patterns.” These are tricks used by websites and apps that manipulate consumers into buying products or services. A new crop of artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot apps are pushing users into pricey subscriptions. LocalCircles is expected to present these findings to the government soon. It said scammers are flooding app stores with software claiming to leverage OpenAI's ChatGPT. The apps often bring high subscription charges and feature intrusive advertising. Usually, the apps offer a free trial. But as the apps come loaded with many ads and restrictions, many opt for a subscription. Unsubscribing from the service is a big task in itself.

LocalCircles said that consumers are voicing their anger at being trapped in an unwanted or expensive subscription trap or an app. These are taking place via the Apple App Store or Google Play Store with forced action or disguised advertisements, according to LocalCircles.

About 50 per cent of consumers surveyed experienced ‘bait and switch’ dark patterns. Here, the app and software delivered to them was different than the one promised to them. Around 25 per cent of consumers experienced that some apps had rogue malware.

Experts warn that even legitimate apps could pose a privacy risk. Some apps will ask for access to your device's information such as your location, contacts, and even screen recording capabilities. These permissions are required for legitimate apps to perform their core functions. People are used to granting access, but it can be abused to obtain your data, monitor your locations, or spy on you, according to LocalCircles.

There are other instances where the consumer opts for a free app or one-time service but later gets drawn into a subscription service. A consumer recently shared on the LocalCircles platform, “When you’re trying to cancel your Microsoft Office subscription before the auto-renew kicks in, they require you to talk to a live person to do that, and the live support is closed.”

Another consumer shared, “Apple Arcade subscription auto-renew can’t be cancelled without immediately losing access.”

A consumer also shared how a one-time piano practice app download for their child via the app store turned out to be a monthly subscription for them. There was no easy way to cancel the service. It was only after several charges that they were able to log into a laptop device and cancel the subscription.

These are just a few dark patterns of the hundreds of them reported by consumers since India banned the use of “dark patterns” via a gazette notification issued by the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) on 30 November 2023.

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First Published: Feb 12 2024 | 8:03 PM IST

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