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ACM confronts online stores using misleading countdown timers with their practices

Dozens of online stores must stop using misleading countdown timers. Following an automated check of thousands of online stores, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has confronted these online stores with their practices. Online stores display right next to a special deal a clock that counts down, which is called a countdown timer. When the timer reaches zero, the special deal should no longer be valid. However, this is not the case with these online stores. They simply continue displaying these special deals. Timers put pressure on consumers to make a purchase decision faster than they probably want to. If the special deal is not temporary, these practices mislead consumers, and are therefore prohibited.

Edwin van Houten, Director of ACM’s Consumer Department, explains: “Online consumers are stimulated in various ways to make purchases. Recently, we have been able to conduct automated checks to see whether online stores comply with the rules. This allows us to discover quickly whether online stores use misleading techniques, and to take effective enforcement action. Online stores are allowed to persuade consumers into buying their products, but they cannot mislead them.”

ACM’s investigation

ACM’s investigation focused on online stores that target Dutch consumers. In its investigation, ACM found hundreds of countdown timers, for example: “3 hours remain to take advantage of this deal”. The use of timers in itself is not prohibited, but the timers must have actual consequences: the deal is available for a limited amount of time, and will disappear once the timer reaches zero. In 41 cases, ACM discovered that deals were still available after the timer had reached zero, or that a new timer started with the same or even a better offer. That is prohibited.

Guidelines on the protection of the online consumer

ACM has drawn up Guidelines on the protection of the online consumer. These guidelines help businesses comply with the rules that protect consumers against online misleading practices. One of these rules is avoiding so-called dark patterns. Dark patterns are technical and behavior-influencing techniques, as a result of which consumers are persuaded to make purchases that are not to their benefit. Examples of dark patterns include countdown timers, but also the design of websites. In addition, pre-ticked checkboxes are not always in the interest of consumers either.

ACM and the digital economy

The digital economy is one of ACM’s key priorities. The basic principle is that consumers are able to take full advantage of all the benefits that the digital society has to offer. Through our oversights efforts, we contribute towards reaching that goal.

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