As the guy in my family who writes for WIRED, I often act as tech support. When relatives want to know what phone to buy or why the Wi-Fi sucks in the back room, they ask me. I recently discovered that an elderly family member was being charged more than double what I pay each month for internet service that was 30 times slower. After investigating, I found they were paying well over the odds for mobile data, too. The same carrier was charging them significantly more than me, even though I was getting four times the data. My relative had no idea that they were getting a bad deal, and they were reluctant to call, partly because of previous negative experiences and partly because they struggle to hear properly on the phone.

For most folks, finding the best deal means wading through a minefield of attractive introductory offers and enticements. But opting to do nothing often means paying more. Anyone lacking the digital skills or willpower to shop around gets ripped off. At the risk of sounding like Jimmy Stewart, “What happened to basic decency?” Overselling is commonplace, loyalty is punished rather than rewarded, and old and vulnerable folks bear the brunt of this cynical exploitation. If your relatives are lucky enough to have you in their lives, here’s how you can help.

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Short Changed

I was reminded of the hassle my late grandfather had. Utility companies knocked on his door and exploited his loneliness to persuade him to change suppliers every few weeks. He had no idea he was racking up early termination fees each time. This practice was such a big problem in the United Kingdom that government regulators had to step in and introduce a mandatory cooling-off period. Sadly, predatory marketing calls targeting the elderly are still a major scourge.

Upon checking in on this topic with some other family, I discovered that a frail relative currently undergoing cancer treatment was being charged a small fortune for a TV package (including extremely pricey live sports) that she never used. Her multiple attempts to cancel by phone had all been rebuffed. The FTC is currently fighting to make it easier to cancel subscriptions, but cable companies are resisting.

Another relative phoned me, flustered, in a big box store because the salesperson was being pushy about a particular overpriced laptop. It was completely unsuitable for his needs, contrary to what they had told him. That’s before they tried to sell him on the useless extended warranty.

It’s worth mentioning that every relative I spoke with also had stories about attempted scams, in person, via the phone, and even through regular mail. Their inboxes were packed with phishing emails. More than $8 billion is reported stolen from people aged 60 and up every year in the US alone. Sadly, many scams and thefts go unreported. This American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) report suggests the true cost may be as high as $28 billion.

Helping Hand

As the targets of scams and morally dubious business practices, what can we do to help our elderly and vulnerable? I spoke with Dr. Genevieve Waterman from the National Council on Aging (NCOA), an expert on financial education among older adults. She was quick to point out that pushy salespeople often use the same tactics as scammers, creating a false sense of urgency to secure a signature or sale.

To start helping your loved ones, you may need to negotiate some tricky conversational waters. Some folks struggle to accept help, prefer to keep finances private, or feel patronized by advice. Begin by letting them know they can ask you if they want to, but be careful not to be judgmental if they open up. If you can get into the habit of discussing these kinds of things openly, it can make life easier down the road. It works best if it’s a two-way street, so share your worries and ask for advice, don’t just give it. After all, it’s not just older folks who get ripped off.


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