Publisher Faces $18.5M Fine From FTC

The Federal Trade Commission is considering what action should be taken against Publishers Clearing House who used dark patterns to mislead consumers.

Dark Patterns

Dark patterns are ways in which companies use colours and small fonts to mislead consumers using companies’ websites.

In this instance it was found that the publisher was using dark patterns to mislead customers about the company’s sweepstake competitions and other things. They used trick wording and visual interference to conflate ordering products and entering the sweepstakes. Any disclosures were placed in small, light-colored fonts where customers were unlikely to be able to see them. The company have been told that sweepstake information and ordering information must be separated completely and all disclosures must be presented clearly.

They were also found to bombard customers with emails pressuring them to take immediate action or risk losing their opportunity to enter and win the competition. It was also made very difficult for customers to enter sweepstakes without making a purchase. The company has been prohibited from stating or even implying that consumers must make purchases to enter sweepstakes or that a consumers chance of winning will be improved if they make a purchase.

Additional Problems

It was not just the use of dark patterns that was found when the FTC investigated the company. Emails were sent to customers with subject headings that referenced fictitious documents that resembled documents from government entities. The FTC have said the company are now prohibited from sending such misleading emails.

Additionally there were problems found with the company’s Privacy Policy. The policy stated that consumer’s information was not rented, licensed or sold to third-parties however it was found that this was inaccurate information as information was shared with third parties who used the information to target consumers through adverts on the company’s website. The company are now also prohibited from making any misrepresentations regarding the collection, usage, storage, or disclosure of consumer information.

Outcome

As well as all the points mentioned above there a number of things the company will be required to do. Firstly, they will be required to pay a $18.5 million civil penalty from the FTC. They have also been told to retain records on the use of dark patterns and destroy any personal information that they collected from consumers prior to January 2019.

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