Online shopping traps caught out 8.5 million people in the last year


Online shopping traps caught out 8.5 million people in the last year

  • Deceptive online retail tactics lead to 8.5 million people buying something they didn’t want, need or came to regret.
  • Two thirds of people affected by these online traps said it negatively impacted household finances (an estimated 5.6 million customers).
  • Misleading or difficult to find information and ‘drip pricing’ head the top five most common tactics used by unscrupulous online retailers.
  • Citizens Advice calls for legislation to keep pace with the tactics of some online retailers.

One in six people (8.5 million) ended up buying something they didn’t want, need or came to regret because of online shopping traps used by some retailers. This is according to new research by Citizens Advice released today.

Deceptive online tactics commonly used include auto-renewing subscriptions and ‘drip pricing’ techniques – where a website or app hooks a shopper in with headline prices, only to reveal at checkout the real price is higher when necessary add-ons are factored in. These tactics, while legal, are catching shoppers off guard and leading to serious buyers’ remorse. 

At a time of mounting financial pressures on households, these online shopping traps cost consumers almost £2.1 billion last year through purchases they didn’t want, need or came to regret. Worryingly, two thirds of those who fell victim to these traps said it negatively impacted household finances (an estimated 5.6 million customers).

It’s costing people time as well as money, with people spending, on average, one day per year dealing with the consequences of these features, including chasing refunds or making a complaint afterwards. 

With the government already targeting subscription traps in the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, the charity is calling for proposals to go further and ban auto-renewing subscriptions. However the charity says while clamping down on certain tactics is a start, it also wants to see new fit-for-purpose regulations and clear obligations for retailers when it comes to consumers’ interests and website or app design.

Citizens Advice reveals the top five online shopping traps used by retailers in the last year:

1. Misleading or difficult to find information 

A company is selective in what information it presents about a product or service. For example, this might mean labelling a product as ‘best value’, when the retailer also sells cheaper versions.

2. Drip pricing 

A website or app leads with a headline price, but at checkout the final price is higher, once necessary conditions are applied. This makes it harder for consumers to compare prices across retailers.

3. Subscription traps 

A website or app offers a subscription, often as a free trial, but consumers either don’t fully understand what they’re signing up for, and/or don’t realise this will automatically roll into a paid subscription.

4. Limited stock claims 

A website or app shows something as ‘low in stock’ or popular (‘100 people looked at this in the last 24 hrs’). Our previous research found that these scarcity tactics can result in consumers spending more than they intended to, with 28% reporting feeling pressured to make a purchase.

5. Countdown timers 

Similar to limited stock claims, this pressure tactic involves having a countdown timer for when a sale ends. 

The stark knock-on effects of these tactics include over half (51%) of consumers affected experiencing a negative impact on their mental health. Many consumers also reported feeling frustrated (39%), anxious (21%) and ripped off (29%). Over two thirds of shoppers said their trust and confidence in online shopping was negatively impacted.

Bethan’s story – “I was really angry. Why should someone have to opt out of a subscription when buying something?”

Bethan* signed up to a subscription with an online retailer without realising. 

“As a mum, I use this online retailer quite often because they get packages to me quickly.

The first time I noticed they had signed me up for their premium service was when I noticed a charge on my statement. When I spoke to their customer services they said that by default the subscription is highlighted and I would have had to change it to not be signed up. 

“It makes me so mad. It’s just ridiculous and underhand that a company can get away with tricking people into signing up for their premium service. I think I’m now savvy enough and will make sure I deselect the default before then pressing the buy button, although I should not have to, as the default shouldn’t be a subscription”.

Matthew Upton, Acting Executive Director of Policy and Advocacy at Citizens Advice, said:

“With tactics like these, some online retailers are making it even harder for people to shop smart. The result is consumers wasting billions, at a time when many can least afford it.

“If we want to stop firms taking advantage of consumers in this way, we’ll need legislation that can really keep pace with online retail.”