A goal for our society that I continue to support is the idea of progress. We shouldn’t reject change just because it’s hard for a lot of people. When innovation can move us forward towards a better and fairer future, we need to embrace new ideas.
But progress can be difficult. The role of anyone whose parents are aging is to help them navigate an ever-changing world. Often that means trying to guide them through new technological developments, which can be especially difficult for older people who may not have relied on the internet while working and raising families.
A common frustration among seniors is the increasing need to go online to complete tasks that were previously done in person or over the phone. The lack of personal interaction can prevent some seniors from getting the help they really need if they don’t have tech-savvy parents who can help them.
But in some cases, technology is making it easier for some people to connect with the older population — and not in a good way. Computer programs help those who intend to separate vulnerable people from their money to identify potential targets and pursue them with enticing offers and terrible threats.
Advocates, government agencies and elected officials routinely issue warnings against scammers and swear retaliation for their actions. But not all misleading consumer outreach comes from dubious overseas boiler room or call center operations.
Unfortunately, many of the calls and mailings of unnecessary and unnecessary products received in homes every day are not restricted by federal, state or local authorities. Elected officials may wring their hands in the face of this situation, but in fact they have sometimes, in the name of progress, encouraged excessive canvassing of consumers who may not understand the consequences of their actions.
Extended car warranties are an example of this concern. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports aAutomatic warranty robocalls have been the number one unwanted call complaint consumers have filed with the FCC for two consecutive years. In addition to robocalls, consumers often receive misleading emails about “expiring” auto warranties.
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Mailings and calls confuse many consumers because of the information in the pitch. Callers and mailers know the make, model and year of the consumer’s automobile. The tone of the language implies that it is almost mandatory for the consumer to purchase the extended warranty, which is nothing more than a service contract.
All consumers can fall victim to this sales pitch, but seniors are even more susceptible, especially in the case where a surviving spouse has suddenly become responsible for their own finances after years of husband or wife managing those kinds of details.
Government officials are issuing warnings about car warranty scams – but seem powerless to stop consumers from being inundated with these offers. The FCC recently ordered phone companies to block robocalls from a particular distributor — but hundreds more continue to work.
Perhaps more egregious are marketers trying to get Pennsylvanians to switch electricity providers. Pennsylvania’s Electric Choice System gives consumers the ability to choose which company supplies their electricity, and many suppliers compete to attract customers.
The law offers consumers the option of staying with a “default” electricity supplier. But the law also allows “default” vendors to give customer information to competing vendors. As a result, consumers in Pennsylvania have been inundated with calls, mailings and even door-to-door salespeople trying to convince them to switch electricity providers.
Some consumers may see a small saving if they switch. But others switch because they’re lured by a gift card offer. The end result for some may be much higher electricity rates in the long run – as so many Pennsylvanians experienced during the “polar vortex” of 2017.
Competition in the sale of car warranties and the supply of electricity is seen as “progress” in the business world. The availability of consumer information online makes direct marketing easier and cheaper, reducing costs that, in theory, could be passed on to consumers.
But these lofty visions of progress do not correspond to the harsh reality of today’s world, where the rich get richer at the expense of the most vulnerable. PT 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 marketers and hide behind the First Amendment when their constituents ask them to fix it.
Our story is full of night time operators selling elixirs and leaving town before the sun rises the next day. Technology has changed their ways, but it hasn’t changed many people’s desire to make a quick buck from others. Preventing this from happening so regularly would be the true definition of “progress”.