More on Amazon’s devious practices

I posted recently about how Amazon is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission for unfair practices that include tricking people into signing up for its Prime services and then making it hard for them to get out of it. The Prime subscription costs $14.99 per month and accounts for $25 billion of its annual revenue. The Prime subscription gives you ‘free shipping’ though that is an illusion since you have essentially pre-paid for shipping whether you use it or not.

Amazon also provides Prime Video, which is a subscription-based streaming service, at a lower cost but although it is possible to sign up for just that, the company makes it hard to do so. After being informed that they were being sued by the FTC, Amazon made some changes. (You can read the FTC press release here and lawsuit here. Paragraphs 23-79 and 149-216 are heavily redacted.))

The extent of their devious practices is really is quite breathtaking. First up is how they manage to get people to sign up.

During Amazon’s online checkout process, consumers were faced with numerous opportunities to subscribe to Amazon Prime at $14.99/month. In many cases, the option to purchase items on Amazon without subscribing to Prime was more difficult for consumers to locate. In some cases, the button presented to consumers to complete their transaction did not clearly state that in choosing that option they were also agreeing to join Prime for a recurring subscription.

FTC points out that Amazon places multiple points along the way of a customer’s purchasing journey where they’re urged to sign up for Prime, including “interrupting” their shopping with “prominent” buttons offering Prime enrollments and tiny links declining them. The customer must select one in order to continue their purchase. The suit claims that Prime subscription offers aren’t always clearly worded as such, and consumers may think they’re simply choosing to get free shipping or a free trial without realizing that a paid subscription comes along with it. Amazon also made it confusing for people who wanted to just get Prime Video, the company’s streaming service, causing them to accidentally sign up for the more expensive Prime option instead.

Once you’ve signed up (whether by intent or by accident), if you try to cancel, you are confronted with what the company itself calls in its internal documents the “Iliad Flow”, no doubt an inside joke about the arduousness of the journey involved to reach that destination. As the FTC lawsuit says:

To cancel via the Iliad Flow, a consumer had to first locate it, which Amazon made difficult. Consumers could access the Iliad Flow from by navigating to the Prime Central page, which consumers could reach by selecting the “Account & Lists” dropdown menu, reviewing the third column of dropdown links Amazon presented, and selecting the eleventh option in the third column (“Prime Membership”). This took the consumer to the Prime Central Page. (paragraph 117)

But wait! That’s not all.

Once the consumer reached Prime Central, the consumer had to click on the “Manage Membership” button to access the dropdown menu. That revealed three options. The first two were “Share your benefits” (to add household members to Prime) and “Remind me before renewing” (Amazon then sent the consumer an email reminder before the next charge).

The last option was “End Membership.” The “End Membership” button did not end membership. Rather, it took the consumer to the Iliad Flow. (paragraphs 118-119)

Once consumers reached the Iliad Flow, they had to proceed through its entirety—spanning three pages, each of which presented consumers several options, beyond the Prime Central page—to cancel Prime.

On the first page of the Iliad Flow, Amazon forced consumers to “[t]ake a look back at [their] journey with Prime” and presented them with a summary showing the Prime services they used. Amazon also displayed marketing material on Prime services, such as Prime Delivery, Prime Video, and Amazon Music Prime. Amazon placed a link for each service and encouraged consumers to access them immediately, i.e., “Start shopping today’s deals!”, “You can start watching videos by clicking here!”, and “Start listening now!” Clicking on any of these options took the consumer out of the Iliad Flow.

Also, on page one of the Iliad flow, Amazon presented customers with three buttons at the bottom. “Remind Me Later,” the button on the left, sent the consumer a reminder three days before their Prime membership renews (an option Amazon had already presented the consumer once before, in the “Manage Membership” pull-down menu through which the consumer entered the Iliad Flow). The “Remind Me Later” button took the consumer out of the Iliad Flow without cancelling Prime. “Keep My Benefits,” on the right, also took the consumer out of the Iliad Flow without cancelling Prime. Finally, “Continue to Cancel,” in the middle, also did not cancel Prime but instead proceeded to the second page of the Iliad Flow. Therefore, consumers could not cancel their Prime subscription on the first page of the Iliad Flow. (paragraphs 126-128)

The lawsuit then goes on and on about the many other things you have to do before you finally get to do something that actually cancels the subscription, and concludes:

Amazon designed the Iliad Flow (both desktop and mobile) to inform consumers about a) Prime benefits they would lose by cancelling Prime, and b) alternative payment methods available to them to keep Prime.

Amazon did not design the Iliad Flow to be simple or easy for consumers. The Iliad Flow inhibits or prevents many consumers who intend to cancel from cancelling their membership. (paragraphs 147-148)

If the Prime service was really such a good deal, the company would not have to go to such lengths to trick people into signing up and then making it so hard for them to cancel. I sometimes order things online from businesses (never from Amazon) and do not spend anywhere near $14.99 per month on shipping. You would have to be an extraordinarily heavy user to come out even.

Amazon is clearly seeking to exploit the technological illiteracy of its users that will make them reluctant to read the fine print and follow the tortured path necessary to get to the end and cancel, as well as their impatience that will cause them to say ‘the hell with it’ and leave without getting there. Many businesses do this. The reason why customer service can be so poor with long waiting times spent listening to Muzak punctuated by irritating sales promotions and complicated phone trees is not an accident. Those businesses hope that you will get frustrated and hang up.

Amazon has just taken it to the next level.


  1. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Anything you need to do, you can learn how to do, on YouTube. If you search YT for “how to cancel amazon prime” you find several tutorial videos, including one that shows how to do it on your phone! This one ( even has a direct link to the membership page where cancellation is done.

    Not saying Amazon doesn’t use dark patterns or that cancelling Prime isn’t difficult starting from scratch; I’m sure that’s all true. What I am saying is that YT is an amazing source of tutorials for anything.

  2. says

    “Iliad flow”?

    It reads more like the Odyssey, ten years of wandering around lost, backtracking repeatedly before finding your destination.

  3. mordred says

    Can’t remember how many steps it took for me to cancel my prime subscription, don’t remember it being all that difficult. Maybe consumer protection laws are a bit stricter than in the US, maybe they changed the process after I quit, which was a few years ago.
    What I do remember is that the text on the form made it sound like I would immediately lose all membership perks, which of course was not true, as I had payed till the end of the month.

  4. Ridana says

    I’ve signed up for the free trials several times. I never had any trouble canceling them before I had to pay them. All they did was give me a couple of “are you sure?” kinds of screens, but I never went through pages of “Iliad Flow” or whatever to opt out. I’m not particularly tech savvy, I just read what’s in front of me. And I guess they’re so sure that this time they’ll hook me that they don’t seem to mind offering me a free trial whenever I buy anything. I suppose it’s also worth it to them, since I do stock up on more stuff during the trial period.
    Normally it’s not worth it to me since I don’t shop there a lot, but if I know there’s a bunch of stuff I want, I’ll sign up for another free trial and let them give me deals two or three times a year.

  5. Holms says

    Reminds me of cancelling a phone service. The easy part there was navigating the system to cancel, the irritating part was the follow-up call from the retention department. An entire call centre dedicated to giving unctuous blandishments and offers of special deals to anyone that expresses a desire to leave; and only after they have exhausted their supply of mandatory offers do they proceed to cancelling your service.

  6. John Morales says

    “But the plans were on display…”
    “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
    “That’s the display department.”
    “With a flashlight.”
    “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
    “So had the stairs.”
    “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
    “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”
    ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  7. Mano Singham says

    @#3 and @#4,

    According to the FTC press release:

    The complaint notes that Amazon was aware of consumers being nonconsensually enrolled and the complex and confusing process to cancel Prime that the company’s executives failed to take any meaningful steps to address the issues until they were aware of the FTC investigation. In the complaint, the FTC also alleges that Amazon attempted to delay and hinder the Commission’s investigation in multiple instances. [My emphasis]

    It may be that your experience was after Amazon was goaded into action.

  8. Steve Morrison says

    @#1: You can also find an article on Wikihow about canceling Amazon Prime, and about most other things you may need to do.

  9. John Morales says

    Steve Morrison, thing is, they’d not have done had it not worked. Empiricism.

    Not everyone can (or even knows they can) use YouTube or Wikihow to overcome this impediment, and that proportion of the population suffices for $$$.

    On a cynical note, for enterprises it’s just the cost of doing business.

    If one profits $$$ but gets fined $$, well, that’s a net profit. Why not, then?

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