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Amazon sued by FTC over 'tricking' customers into Prime subscriptions

caption: "Hello world," says an Amazon office tower at the company's Seattle headquarters.
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"Hello world," says an Amazon office tower at the company's Seattle headquarters.
Monica Nickelsburg / KUOW

Amazon is in the hot seat with federal regulators and lawmakers this week. The Seattle-based tech giant faces a lawsuit over practices on its e-commerce website and a separate investigation into safety conditions at its warehouses.

The Federal Trade Commission has charged Amazon with enrolling customers in its Prime subscription without consent and intentionally making it difficult for them to unsubscribe.

The complaint was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. It says Amazon signed customers up for Prime as they were checking out, without clearly explaining that hitting the purchase button would also enroll them in the program. It’s one of several “dark patterns” identified in the complaint.

The FTC also claims Amazon designed an intentionally difficult process for customers who wanted to cancel their Prime subscriptions.

FTC Chair Lina Khan — a longtime thorn in Amazon’s side — accused the company of “manipulative tactics” that “harm consumers and law-abiding businesses alike,” in a statement.

An Amazon spokesperson called the FTC’s claims “false on the facts and the law” in a statement to KUOW, noting Prime is beloved by customers and designed with their feedback in mind. Amazon said it was not notified of the lawsuit before the public and found that “extremely disappointing.”

“We look forward to proving our case in court,” the spokesperson said.

The FTC complaint comes amid a separate investigation into Amazon launched by Senator Bernie Sanders. As chair of the Senate’s labor committee, Sanders is looking into injury rates at the fulfillment centers that power Amazon’s ecommerce operations.

“The company’s quest for profits at all costs has led to unsafe physical environments, intense pressure to work at unsustainable rates, and inadequate medical attention for tens of thousands of Amazon workers every year,” Sanders said in a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy.

Amazon has been cited several times by state and federal labor regulators for safety violations in recent years, including the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. The Washington State Legislature passed two laws last session aimed at protecting warehouse workers.

RELATED: Behind your speedy Amazon delivery are serious hazards for workers, government finds

In a statement, Amazon said it strongly disagrees with Sanders’ claims.

Sanders asked Jassy to respond to a detailed list of questions about its warehouse operations by July 5.

The FTC and Senate investigations are just the latest in a series of probes into Amazon's practices. The company has been in the hot seat with regulators and lawmakers repeatedly over the years for everything from antitrust issues to data privacy concerns.

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