Are you a shopaholic? Do you find yourself splurging online on things you don’t even need? Then you should beware of the tricks that sellers of products and services use, to tempt you into buying unnecessary stuff or overpaying for it.

Recently, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs put out draft guidelines to discourage doubtful selling practices (which it calls dark patterns) used by some e-commerce platforms to trick buyers into doing what they don’t want to do. Many of these practices are used not just by e-commerce sites, but by other sellers too. Here are some of the little traps laid out for you, and how you can skirt them.

Psychological baits   

It is human tendency to want something more if it’s in short supply. Luxury goods sellers the world over leverage this trait, when they launch limited editions of handbags, sneakers or watches that have rich folks scrambling for them.

But your neighbourhood retailer or shopping site may use this trick too. Ever bought things online at midnight because of a count-down timer telling you that a sale will run out in a few minutes? Clicked on a shirt of a certain size and colour because there were only ‘two items left in stock’? Spent an unnecessary ₹5,000 on shoes because of a gift coupon set to expire soon? These lures are meant to create a sense of false urgency to impel a purchase. To avoid being manipulated, remind yourself that there will always be future opportunities to buy what you want.     

Other platforms are good at emotional manipulation. Confirm-shaming is a practice where a platform tries to guilt-trip or shame you into clicking yes when you want to say no. Sites soliciting donations are experts at playing on your heart-strings, when they bombard you with graphic videos of terminally ill children. Ticket-booking sites try to shame you by making you click on ‘I will remain unsecured’ when you refuse to buy insurance. Reminding yourself that these emotionally triggering messages are designed by an over-smart business can help you ignore them.  

Bloating your bill

Do you have the habit of shopping online and checking out in a tearing hurry? Then you could be a prime target for practices such as basket sneaking and drip pricing.

In basket sneaking, the platform or seller slyly slips in an additional purchase into your shopping cart at the time of checkout, without your noticing it. It could be something as simple as the seller adding three bottles of wellness supplements instead of one to your basket, citing a minimum order quantity. Or quietly adding a monthly subscription for the item for all times to come, without your noticing it. Many ticketing sites slip travel insurance into your basket at the time of checkout as a default option. Keeping close tabs on what you’re buying, and unchecking all the extra boxes during checkout, is the only way to avoid these tricks.

In drip pricing, the site or seller showcases a bargain price for a product or service when you’re browsing. But new charges are added at the time of checkout, to substantially increase your final buy price. Some low-cost airlines sell you a ticket at rock-bottom fares, but charge you extra for everything — from choosing a seat to check-in baggage. A food or grocery delivery platform may add on restaurant/packing charges or bad weather charges that didn’t figure on the menu when you chose your food. Being prepared to cancel your purchase at the time of checkout if the price is too high is the only way to deal with this.

Bait and switch

Ever clicked on a link advertising a “Buy one get three free offer” only to find hardly any items available with this deal? Most folks would then get tempted to browse some more and buy some items at full price. This is a classic bait and switch operation, where a platform or seller advertises a too-good-to-be-true deal to hook customers, but then switches the product when they actually land on the site. One coupon site advertises ‘90 per cent off deals’ on Google, but once you click it, you find a variety of offers offering much lower discounts of 40-50 per cent. 

Bait and switch operations can also take the form of a seller telling you that the stock has run out on the advertised product after advertising it, or imposing additional conditions, such as a minimum bill value, to let you avail of the offer. Bait and switch advertising is illegal in most countries and is sought to be prohibited in India too.

Fake reviews

One of the most powerful weapons that online shoppers have in their armour is the ability to warn other buyers off a defective or poor-quality product/service through their reviews and ratings. But sellers have found a way to manipulate these reviews too.

Some sellers on the large sites offer cashbacks or free gifts to buyers willing to post fake five-star reviews on their mediocre products. Others hire agencies to drum up fake reviews and likes. These agencies contact random folks over social media or Whatsapp, offering them a part-time ‘job’ that consists of posting fake likes and reviews for products or services they have never used. To avoid falling into this trap, read the bad reviews first. Be sceptical of products or services that have only five-star reviews accompanied by glowing tributes. Even the best products or services are bound to have some customers who are dissatisfied after the purchase.