Why can’t we get a handle on scams targeting the elderly? | Ray E. Landis

Older adults, who are more used to face-to-face interactions, are particularly vulnerable

September 11, 2022 6:30 am

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A goal for our our society I continue to support is the idea of progress. We should not reject change simply because it is difficult for many people. When innovation can move us to a better, fairer future we need to embrace new ideas.

But progress can prove challenging. A role for anyone with aging parents is to help them navigate the ever-changing world. Often this means trying to walk them through new developments in technology which can be particularly difficult for older people who may not have relied on the internet as they worked and raised families.

A common frustration for older adults is the increasing need to go on-line to accomplish tasks which previously were done face-to-face or via the telephone. The lack of personal interaction can prevent some seniors from getting assistance they truly need if they do not have tech-savvy relatives who can help them.

But in some instances, technology is making it easier for certain individuals to connect with the older population – and not in a good way. Computer programs are helping those intent on separating vulnerable people from their money to identify potential targets and pursue them with tempting offers and dire threats.

Advocates, government agencies, and elected officials regularly issue warnings about scam artists and vow retribution for their actions. But not all of the deceptive outreach to consumers comes from shady boiler room operations or overseas call centers. 

Unfortunately, many of the calls and mailings marketing unneeded and unnecessary products received every day in homes are not restricted by federal, state, or local authorities. Elected officials may wring their hands about this situation, but in fact they have sometimes, in the name of progress, encouraged excessive outreach to consumers who may not understand the consequences of their actions.

Extended automobile warranties are an example of this concern. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports auto-warranty robocalls were the top unwanted call complaint filed by consumers with the FCC for two years running. In addition to robocalls, consumers often receive deceptive mailings regarding “expiring” automobile warranties.

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The mailings and calls cause confusion for many consumers because of the information contained in the pitch. Callers and mailings know the make, model, and year of the consumer’s automobile. The tone of the language implies it is almost a requirement for the consumer to purchase the extended warranty, which is nothing more than a service contract.

All consumers may fall victim to this sales pitch, but older adults are even more susceptible, particularly in the case when a surviving spouse has suddenly become responsible for his or her own finances after years of their husband or wife handling these sorts of details.

Government officials issue warnings about auto warranty scams – but seem helpless to prevent consumers from being flooded with these offers. The FCC recently issued an order to phone companies to block robocalls from a particular marketer – but hundreds of others continue to operate.

Perhaps more egregious are the marketers attempting to get Pennsylvanians to switch their electricity supplier. Pennsylvania’s electric choice system gives consumers an opportunity to choose what company supplies their electricity, and numerous suppliers compete to attract customers.

The law provides consumers an opportunity to remain with a “default” electricity supplier. But the law also permits the “default” suppliers to give customer information to competitive suppliers. As a result, Pennsylvania consumers have been flooded with calls, mailings, and even door-to-door marketers attempting to convince them to switch electricity suppliers.

Some consumers may see a small savings if they switch. But others switch because they are enticed by an offer of a gift card. The end result for some can be much higher electricity rates over the long term – as so many Pennsylvanians experienced during the “polar vortex” of 2017.

Competition in selling automobile warranties and electricity supply is looked at as “progress” in the business world. The availability of consumer information on-line makes direct marketing easier and less expensive, reducing costs which theoretically could be passed along to consumers.

But those lofty visions of progress do not meet the gritty reality of today’s world, where the rich get richer at the expense of the vulnerable. P.T. Barnum may or may not have said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but many of today’s marketers live by such a creed. And too many of today’s elected officials defer to the marketers and hide behind the First Amendment when asked by their constituents to address the situation.

Our history is full of fly-by-night operators selling elixirs and leaving town before the sun rises the next day. Technology has changed their methods – but it hasn’t changed the desire of many people wanting to make a quick buck off others. Preventing that from occurring so regularly would be the real definition of “progress.”

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.