The US Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on the purveyor of kids game ABCMouse this week, having alleged that the company “made misrepresentations about cancellations and failed to disclose important information to consumers” as well as “unfairly billed ABCmouse users without their authorization and made it difficult for consumers to cancel their memberships, preventing consumers from avoiding additional charges.” FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra further argued that it “trick[ed] and trap[ped] families into paid subscriptions” and “scammed millions of dollars from families” through “conduct that was not only unethical, but also illegal.”
ABCMouse is not an MMO, but it’s an online game run by Age of Learning, which we have profiled before as it’s helmed by former MMORPG developers and also produces Adventure Academy (shown in the image above), which is its more modern 3-D educational MMO for kids.
Chopra’s statement today refers to dark patterns – something we’ve talked about rather recently here on MOP – as “design features used to deceive, steer, or manipulate users into behavior that is profitable for an online service, but often harmful to users or contrary to their intent.” In ABCMouse’s case, the studio is alleged to have deceived and confused “tens of thousands of consumers” with deceptive subscription and labyrinthine cancellation processes. Here’s the summary from Chopra’s statement (which was made separately by him in addition to the original complaint and the formal FTC release):
“ABCmouse was undoubtedly a roach motel. Through the dark patterns detailed in the FTC’s complaint, ABCmouse deployed tricks to lure families into signing up for its service, and traps to prevent them from cancelling. First, ABCmouse tricked consumers with a ’12-month’ membership offer, without disclosing that this membership would automatically renew. Instead, the company buried this information in its ‘Terms and Conditions,’ which were accessible only if users clicked a hyperlink. Even those families that did click the link would have struggled to learn the truth, which was concealed in small, dense text. Unsurprisingly, these problematic practices prompted tens of thousands of families to file complaints. Instead of fixing the user experience, ABCmouse doubled down on deception by deploying a host of mazes and obstacles to prevent families from cancelling their membership. As detailed in the Commission’s complaint, the company made it difficult for families to know where to start the process by deeply burying the link to the cancellation path, and by frequently refusing to honor cancellation requests initiated through their Customer Support portal or over the phone. Then, families who tried to cancel through the website were forced to click through a labyrinth of pages urging them not to cancel. In addition to wasting families’ time, these pages were riddled with traps – ambiguous menu options that in some cases re-enrolled members if they clicked the wrong button. When families complained, ABCmouse responded by making the site even more deceptive. For example, the Commission’s complaint details how in 2017, ABCmouse changed its site to make the already-buried ‘Cancellation Policy’ link less prominent. The trick worked, with the company’s Senior Design Director reporting that more families were abandoning their efforts to cancel.”
Age of Learning has apparently agreed to pay $10 million to settle the FTC’s charges.
For what it’s worth, my own family had subbed to ABCMouse for the last couple of years and just happen to have unsubbed this summer since our kids are having more fun in Adventure Academy (and in Prodigy, which is not run by this company). We found the unsubbing process unremarkable, suggesting that Age of Learning has cleaned up its act recently (the complaint covers the period from 2015 to 2018).
Of course, that doesn’t absolve it of its past transgressions. And no, none of these dirty tricks is new, but the fact that the FTC is litigating another one ought to be a wake-up call for other MMO companies that are currently pulling exactly the same stunts.
“This FTC settlement resolves concerns that between 2015 and early 2018 less than 2% of ABCmouse subscribers may not have fully understood that their subscriptions would renew, or how to easily cancel their memberships. Although the vast majority of the families we serve have been highly satisfied, we regret any confusion that any subscriber may have experienced. We enhanced and streamlined our subscription, cancellation, and customer support processes years ago, and we are committed to continuing to provide an exceptional user experience to parents and caregivers.
“We settled this matter to focus on our work of helping educate children. Over more than a decade, Age of Learning has developed research-proven early learning programs for families, which are needed now more than ever in communities across America. We have provided more than $200 million worth of access to our products at no cost through schools, public libraries, and our COVID-19 School Continuity Initiative for at-home learning during ongoing school closures.”