‘It’s discrimination’: Millions of Britons are frozen in the digital age

Mno one in Britain can live without their smartphone and use it to manage all aspects of their life, from banking to shopping and socialising. But what if the opposite is true, and this clever technology erects invisible barriers that prevent you from doing basic things like paying online, contacting your GP or even parking.

That’s how Jean Peters* feels. The 83-year-old widow, who lives alone in a south Cambridgeshire village, complains that ‘everything is happening online at an ever faster pace’ to the detriment of those ‘who can’t keep up’.

She is one of millions of older people who fall into the smartphone underclass who find it nearly impossible to perform basic day-to-day functions in a world that assumes everyone lives via their handset.

“Every year, it becomes more and more difficult for people with reduced mobility to function normally, and it annoys us more and more,” says Peters. “It’s a fundamental issue of fairness and discrimination. I mean, how did we get to the point where it became almost impossible to pay for parking without a cell phone? »

All the data suggests that far from alone, Peters is expressing a growing sense of frustration across the country. The charity Age UK estimates that 40% of over-75s do not use the internet at all and therefore struggle to access basic services.

Peters, who uses an iPad and an iPhone with which she is less comfortable daily, says companies should be required to offer alternatives online.

“Have you tried to contact an energy company or an insurance company in person recently?” she asks. “If by some miracle you succeed, they demand a password or whatever that you almost certainly don’t have, in which case you’re forced to give up.”

The widow was also affected by the withdrawal of banks from the main street. The two branches closest to her home recently closed, meaning she has to travel 30 miles to do anything other than the most basic banking service in person.

“I’ve done business with Barclays for over 60 years but now find I can’t use the services I pay £20 a month for because I don’t trust online banking and don’t won’t,” she said.

The Digital Poverty Alliance – a group of charities formed to tackle exactly this problem – estimates that there are up to 11 million people in the UK struggling to cope with the tech-only options that have become the new norm.

However, while countless studies have shown that older people are increasingly excluded or charged significantly more for the same services, little is being done to improve their lot, he argues.

A combination of the coronavirus pandemic – when it became acceptable for businesses to stop answering their phones or even opening, let alone answering letters – and banks being forced to carry out security checks. Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) to banking or even online shopping, shuts people out of a world they previously could participate in.

One obvious example among many is last year’s decision by home delivery service Milk & More to switch to online accounts only, a decision that disenfranchised many older buyers of the company that were among its main customers.

A right handed senior woman uses a touch phone keypad to dial a phone number to make a call from her home.
Not everyone uses the latest mobile phone technology. Photography: Realimage/Alamy

Add to that the fact that smartphones are nothing like the Nokia handsets that many older people have grown accustomed to, and it’s easy to see why so many people feel left out.

“Many over 75s have gotten used to video calling their grandkids during the pandemic. However, when it comes to doing more complicated things online, many of this group tell us they struggle for a variety of reasons,” says Sally West, policy manager at Age UK. “Some people have trouble using a keyboard or may have hearing problems and struggle with a cell phone.

“People aren’t just missing out on online shopping, many important services are going online without worrying about those who don’t use or have access to a phone or computer.”

“For example, local authorities are increasingly promoting important services like online housing assistance,” she adds. “We know that many eligible seniors often do not apply for this benefit. Making it more difficult for those who are not online to apply only reduces its adoption by those who need it most. It’s a similar story on every level.

An older woman uses her laptop at home
The Covid pandemic has led to more older people video calling loved ones, but more and more services are moving online without worrying about those without internet access. Photography: Aliyah

When Guardian Money asked readers for their experiences earlier this year, problems paying for online purchases in the face of new anti-fraud identity checks were causing the biggest headaches.

Under SCA rules, online shoppers are often required to prove their identity when making a payment. It’s complicated in that they have to enter some piece of information they know (a password or something similar) plus a one-time passcode is generated at home using a card reader, either sent to the cardholder’s mobile phone or via the bank’s mobile phone. application.

Getting that code wasn’t just a big hassle for older shoppers without a mobile; it’s also been one for those who live in areas with poor mobile signal – but there are a number of ways to improve it.

If you ask, some banks will send you the code as a recorded message on a landline. The downside is that it is often spoken too quickly. The best option – if your bank offers it – may be to receive the code by email.

The problem is not that all banks offer the landline or e-mail option. Nationwide does, but not Barclays. Customers of the latter who do not have a mobile (or signal) must use the app or its card reader to confirm that they are the ones making the purchase.

It’s worth noting that not all purchase transactions require authorization at checkout, as many of these checks happen in the background, but enough to cause problems. “Customers should speak to their bank or provider to discuss the options available,” says UK Finance, which offers advice for vulnerable customers on its website.

Lack of access to one-time passcodes has been a big problem for people who shop online on behalf of their older relatives, usually from their own home and in some cases from another country. .

Banks will not usually send one-time passcodes to foreign mobiles, but the email code option will work provided the person making the purchase can intercept it or have it transferred. If your card provider doesn’t send email, you might be better off switching.

So far, no consumer group has named the best bank for elderly customers. However, we think Nationwide is a good option, especially because it keeps branches open. The Co-op has been praised by readers for this – if you manage to reach its call staff. Last year, that was nearly impossible, forcing Co-op to hire more staff.

The consumer group Which? says First Direct and Nationwide are the top two banks for disabled customers, which, while not directly relevant, is a good indication of banks willing to do more to help.

Another option is to choose a card provider that will allow you to put the store of your choice on an approved list. This means that once you have gone through the verification process when using, for example, the Tesco or Sainsbury’s website for the first time, you will not be asked to verify subsequent stores once you have added the site to your list of trusted recipients.

American Express makes this possible through its SafeKey program. The much-criticized new John Lewis Partner Card also lets you create a list of ‘trusted retailers’.

A parking meter with a sign indicating how to pay by phone on it
Many people would like the ability to pay for parking without having to use a cell phone. Photograph: Simon Dack/Alamy

Jenny Ross, editor of consumer group Which?, says millions are being left behind by the digital services creep, a trend that hasn’t been helped by the wave of recent bank closures.

“Our research indicates strong support for in-person banking options across all age groups and that older adults are less likely to use banking apps,” says Ross. “The number of high street branches has been reduced in recent years, and with more closures to come, it is important that consumers who do not manage their finances on a smartphone are not forgotten.”

Dreaded parking apps

According to activists, there is currently nowhere where the digital divide is felt more deeply than in parking lots across the country. As more car park owners – many at vital sites, including hospitals – have replaced ticket machines with signs requiring customers to pay through their app, older people who don’t use smartphones have seen their world shrink.

Parking apps like PayByPhone and RingGo can be quick and convenient if you know what you’re doing, but they’re a nightmare for the uninitiated who just want to pump coins into the meter and walk away. Indeed, campaigner Esther Rantzen has called on ministers to stop parking companies that require customers to pay per app only from being allowed to issue fines.

On a practical level, drivers can’t do much other than find alternatives to withdraw cash or plan ahead and ask a friend or relative to pay the fee in advance. their name. Or, if you can, use a parking lot with a license plate recognition system, which may be easier.

Private car parks may be entitled to charge only for apps in their terms and conditions, but would that stand up to an Equality Act challenge from someone physically unable to use a smartphone? Probably not.

* Jean Peters is not his real name.

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