Are social media ‘buy’ buttons dangerous?


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Small screens and fat fingers have made buying things on the go a bit of a drag, but new “buy” buttons are making it deliciously easy to use smartphones to purchase items featured in social media posts and ads.

These are fast lanes to the register that could delight online shoppers, but there are also sneaky ways these instant-purchase buttons can lead to bad financial decisions.

And they’re here. Now. Buy buttons already enable Pinterest users to purchase dresses, sneakers and cocktail shakers directly from pins. Variations are rolling out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Google is testing a version in some mobile shopping ads.

How buy buttons work

When you click a buy button inside an app — typically used on social media platforms — you’ll be prompted to enter your credit card information within the app. This allows you to buy a product without having to go to the vendor’s website or app. Your credit information will be saved for future purchases, streamlining checkout even further.

Before you buy, consider these trade-offs.

Celebrate: Buy buttons increase the speed between discovery and purchase.

“A lot of people use a social media site to get ideas and inspiration for what they might like to add to their life,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind.” “There’s a lot of coveting and drooling, and now that coveting and drooling can be turned instantaneously into having, and that’s irresistible, especially to a lot of millennials.”

Hesitate: Quick clicks could trigger impulse buying.

Combine a simple checkout procedure with low impulse control “and we end up with more purchasing going on,” Yarrow says.

Celebrate: Buy buttons allow users to make a transaction within the social media app itself.

This seamless checkout approach reduces the need to trek to 3rd-party sites to track down and purchase an item — think buying a pair of shoes on Facebook without having to visit the shoe store’s app.

Hesitate: Shoppers might be so tempted by the simple payment experience that they don’t investigate other options.

Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, says many shoppers visit Amazon or other sites before making purchases to research retailers, prices and reviews about products.

While buy buttons generally offer some product details, they don’t link to competitor sites — for obvious reasons — and don’t offer the breadth of information that could give shoppers the confidence that they’re making the right choice.

Celebrate: Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and Google can store shoppers’ credit card payment information, which eliminates the need to re-enter data for each purchase.

Hesitate: Though no security issues around buy buttons have been reported, cybercriminals likely have their sights on the features.

“Anytime we create new methodologies that are shortcuts or ways that are directing people to provide personal information, you can expect there are some bad actors who are already figuring out how to game that system,” says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, a nonprofit committed to educating people about using the Internet safely.

Kaiser suspects that attackers may try to use the buy button as a phishing technique to gain sensitive information.

“We have to remember that technology that can be used for good often can be used for bad, and we have to keep in mind both sides of that equation to make sure we protect against the bad,” Kaiser says. “Using critical thinking and being smart about using this new technology is what we would encourage people to do.”