Fixing Access to Internet as Tech Usage Surges Among Seniors During Pandemic

Published in Pawtucket Times on May 10, 2021

Over a year where a global pandemic has significantly reduced social interaction, technology becomes more important than ever, especially for home bound seniors. A newly released 39-page report from the Washington, DC-based AARP found that more older adults (44 percent) view tech more positively as a way to stay connected than they did before COVID-19. The findings indicate that 4 out of 5 adults age 50 and over-relied on technology to stay connected and in contact with family and friends.

Yet, the researchers found that the greater adoption and reliance on technology is uneven because 15 percent of adults 50 and over do not have access to any type of internet, and 60 percent say the cost of high-speed internet is a problem.

Pandemic Increases Use of Technology

“Technology-enabled older adults to better weather the isolation of the pandemic, from ordering groceries to telehealth visits to connecting with loved ones,” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President of Research at AARP in an April 21 statement announcing the release of the report, 2021 Tech Trends and the 50+: Top 10 Big Trends. “But it also exacerbated the divide. So much more is done online, and the 38 million disconnected older adults are being further left out,” she says. 

The report’s findings indicate that annual tech spending by those age 50 and over exponentially increased – from $394 to $1144. The top three tech purchases were smartphones, smart TVs, and earbuds/Bluetooth headsets. 

According to the researchers, using technology to connect with family and friends across multiple forms of communication has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many say they are using video chats (45 percent), texting (37 percent), emailing (26 percent), and phone (29 percent) more now than before the pandemic’s onset. As of 2019, about half had never even used video chat, but one year later they did. Seventy percent have, with 1 in 3 using video chat weekly. Tech use among the age 50 plus community increased particularly in wearable devices – from 17 percent to 27 percent.

The AARP study’s findings indicate that the older participant’s use of smartphones increased dramatically, especially among the homebound. For instance, use for ordering groceries grew from just 6 percent to 24 percent; use for personal health increased from 28 percent to 40 percent for activities like telehealth visits, ordering prescriptions, or even making appointments; use for health and fitness information increased 25 percent to 44 percent and use for financial transactions increased 37 percent to 53 percent.

Weekly use of streaming increased to 58 percent from 44 percent, a significant shift in how the 50+ consume entertainment says the researchers.

Although the study’s researchers also found that half of the age 50 plus wanted to learn more about using tech (54 percent), cost (38 percent), awareness/lack of knowledge (37 percent), and privacy concerns (34 percent) were the top self-reported barriers holding them back from adopting and using the new technology.  

“Privacy concerns continue to be a factor when it comes to using tech, with 83 percent lacking confidence that what they do online remains private,” says the researchers.   

Bringing U.S. Broadband Networks to Millions of Americans

According to Washington, DC-based Free Press, a nonprofit group that is part of the media reform or media democracy movement, more than 77 million Americans lack adequate internet service at home, either because they do not have access or can’t afford it.  

Because of the “stark digital divide,” a much a higher percentage of white families use home broadband internet than Black or Latino families. The ongoing pandemic clearly showed these disparities, particularly for students who struggled to connect while learning remotely, compounding learning loss and social isolation for those students.

Although Congress has already included $3.2 billion in emergency funding for broadband access in the 2021 COVID-19 Stimulus Bill this year, President Biden has called for more funding to increase access to the nation’s U.S. Broadband Networks. Biden recently unveiled the American Jobs Plan Act of 2021, a $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure package, which includes $100 billion in funding to build affordable, reliable high-speed broadband infrastructure throughout the nation to reach 100 percent coverage, as a goal. It would also ensure that all Americans have lower costs for the internet.

Biden’s proposal would build “future proof” broadband infrastructure in unserved (rural and tribal lands) and underserved areas to reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage. It calls for reducing the cost of broadband to allow anyone who wants high-quality and reliable broadband internet to afford it and to promote widespread adoption. It funds the building of high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage, bringing access to unserved and underserved areas across the nation. It would also promote price transparency and competition among internet providers. This would be accomplished by lifting barriers that prevent municipally owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers, and requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge.

The internet item falls within a broader “infrastructure proposal”. Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline calls for the passage of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, stating: “I’m especially pleased that President Biden’s American Jobs Plan addresses some of our most pressing priorities here in Rhode Island. It will rebuild our national transportation infrastructure by modernizing 20,000 miles of roads and doubling federal support for public transit. It will put us on track towards a more sustainable future by electrifying our transportation system and building a network of half a million electric vehicle charging stations. It will ensure every American has access to clean drinking water by replacing lead service lines and pipes that still serve up to ten million homes in our country. It will double the number of registered apprenticeships so that more Americans can take advantage of the jobs this plan creates.” 

It’s Time to Seriously Negotiate

GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. and GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, along with members of their Caucuses, are united in their opposition to the passage of Biden’s infrastructure proposal. An insurmountable wedge was created by the bill’s expansive definition of infrastructure, to includes major funding investments for transportation, housing, eldercare workforce development, and access to broadband, to name a few. It even includes climate change policies, too. GOP lawmakers have a very narrow definition. Simply put, they say just include funding to fix roads, bridges, ports and waterways, and expanding broadband.  

Ultimately, another deal-breaker is how the costly legislative proposal is paid for. Biden calls for the costs to be offset by a corporate tax increase while Republicans see user fees such as road-related taxes and unspent COVID-19 relief funding, to cover costs.

Speaking recently at a press conference at the University of Louisville, McConnell said Democrats should expect “zero” support from the GOP for Biden’s big-ticket infrastructure and social spending proposal. He called on Democrats to support a Senate GOP counteroffer to Biden’s costly infrastructure proposal, costing a mere $568 billion (for roads and bridges, ports, waterways and expanded broadband).

There are many provisions of Biden’s American Jobs Plan of 2021 that both Republicans and Democrats agree on, including investing in roads, bridges, rail lines, ports electricity grid improvements, and increasing access to broadband. Biden says “he’s prepared to negotiate” the cost of the package and how it is paid for. 

So, it’s now time for McCarthy and McConnell to step up to the negotiating table to address their political and philosophical differences over Biden’s definition of infrastructure and funding.

It’s time to send a bipartisan infrastructure bill to Biden to sign.

·For more details about AARP’s Tech Study, go to https://press.aarp.org/2021-4-21-Tech-Usage-Among-Older-Adults-Skyrockets-During-Pandemic.

Seniors with student loans: AARP’s new online tool to manage debt

Published in RINewsToday on April 5, 2021

Over the years, AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) has tracked the staggering amount of student loan debt that seniors are shouldering to help their children and grandchildren finance their higher education. Many people age 50 also take on student loan debt themselves, seeking more education at colleges and universities to sharpen up their skills to get a raise or a higher paying job.  

AARP national CEO, Ann Jenkins, in a July 3, 2019 blog posting, “Student Loan Debt is Crippling too Many Families,” urged Congress and state legislatures to increase public investment in colleges and universities. “The cost of attending a four-year college more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation, as state and local funding for higher education per student has decreased,” she said, noting that family incomes haven’t come close to matching that increase.” 

Jenkins warned that the rising cost of student loan debt is “crippling too many families” and “threatens to crush the financial security of millions of Americans over age 50.” According to a PPI report, released May 2019, entitled “The Student Loan Debt Threat: An Intergenerational Problem,” cited by Jenkins in her blog article, Americans of all ages owed $1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt as of Dec. 2018. Compare this to people ages 50 and older who owed 20 percent of this debt, or $289.5 billion of that total, up from $47.3 billion in 2004, she said, noting “that’s a fivefold increase since 2004.”

Most troubling, this 2019 PPI analysis, found that 25 percent of private student loan cosigners age 50 and older had to make a loan payment because the student borrower failed to do so.

The 2019 PPI analysis findings also indicated the obvious – that is, taking on student loan debt  can quickly deplete a senior’s retirement egg nest. The data revealed that many older student loan borrowers racked up debt by running a balance on a credit card (34 percent) and taking out a Parent PLUS loan, federal money borrowed by parents (26 percent). Other types of borrowing included taking out a home equity loan (12 percent), refinancing of their homes (10 percent), and taking out a loan against their retirement savings (8 percent).

Jenkins also noted that for seniors who defaulted in paying their monthly student loan payments, the federal government can recoup this money by taking a number of steps to collect, among them taking a portion of federal or state income tax refunds, withholding a percentage of Social Security retirement or disability benefits, or even garnishing some of the borrower’s wages.

Today, America’s seniors are still feeling the overwhelming financial weight of having to pay off student loan debt.  

Updated Student Loan Data Released 

Last week, AARP’s PPI released a new report updating data on older student loan borrowers. Like its 2019 analysis, the newly released data in the report, “Rising Student Loan Debt Continues to Burden Older Borrowers”, revealed that student loan debt is still a staggering problem across generations: Americans 50 and older held $336.1 billion, or 22 percent, of the $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in 2020. In 2004, older borrowers accounted for 10 percent of the $455.2 billion student loan debt.

“Student loan debt is becoming a burden for all generations, ensnaring more older adults and delaying or battering the retirement plans for many,” said Gary Koenig, AARP Vice President, Financial Security, in an AARP statement released on March 31, 2021. “Paying for higher education was never meant to last a lifetime.

That is why AARP is helping individuals take charge of their debt and financial security,” he said.

AARP’s newly released PPI analysis found that millions of borrowers – including as many as seven million individuals ages 50-plus – have had their payment suspension extended through September due to the pandemic. However, around a fifth of student loan debt – more than $300 billion – is not included in the current suspension.

Managing Your Student Loan Debt

To help individuals manage their student debt, AARP and Savi unveiled last week a new student loan repayment tool to help individuals identify the best payment options, with special features for the 50-plus population. The Savi Student Loan Repayment Tool provides a free, personalized assessment of student loan repayment options. It can also help individuals identify loan forgiveness opportunities based on employment, and assistance in preparing and filing paperwork.

“We’ve seen the generational impact of student loan debt, and we’re excited to work with AARP in helping older borrowers access immediate and long-term relief,” said Tobin Van Ostern, co-founder of Savi. “This is about changing the narrative and providing freedom from the burdens of student debt to those who need it most,” he notes.

“This new AARP resource provides a means for Rhode Islanders to form a clearer picture of student loan repayment that could help many clear up uncertainties and avoid potential additional costs,” said AARP Stated Director Kathleen Connell. “I urge older Rhode Islanders to get the Information they need, especially those whose retirement savings might be impacted.” 

Any adult with student loans may use the on-line tool at no cost, after registering at AARP.org/studentloans. AARP worked with Savi to customize the tool for older borrowers and includes: Options for dozens of national and state repayment and forgiveness programs; synchronized federal and private loans across all loan servicers easily with industry standard security; support from student loan experts; and access to free educational resources.

According to AARP’s statement announcing the new online tool, the Washington, DC – based aging advocacy group has worked with Savi to provide this resource to low-income older adults at no cost through the AARP Foundation. As older adults are the largest growing age group of student loan borrowers, AARP, and Savi are committed to helping them access the tools they need to begin tackling their student loan debt.

AARP’s statement makes it very clear that its collaboration with Savi does not involve or promote student loan refinancing of any.

Fraud Victimization is a Chronic, Escalating Problem for Seniors

Published in the Pawtucket Times on March 8, 2021

Everyone has heard of the ago old proverb, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”  After being tricked once, hopefully a person learns from one’s mistakes and avoids being tricked in the same way again.   But for many victims of financial fraud, this is not the case.

Last week, AARP, the FINRA Investor Education Foundation (FINRA Foundation) and Heart+Mind Strategies released a four-phase study that identifies evidence-based ways to help repeat victims of financial fraud and their families to avoid being tricked again.

The study’s researchers note that over the years intervention strategies have generally remained the same, while the sophistication of the scammers continues to evolve.  This new study, “Addressing the Challenge of Chronic Fraud Victimization,” released on March 4, provides “new thinking” as to how to support victims of financial fraud and scams who are repeated targeted and fall victim to sophisticated scammers.

According to the study, some of the common tactics used savvy scammers include: playing upon fear, need, excitement, and urgency; making threats; creating a belief of scarcity; using the victim’s personal life and history to create trust; and using emotional stimuli, like hope of winning a prize or finding love, to lure in the victim. 

 The Chronic Fraud Victimization study, published during National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW), scheduled from February 28 to March 6, uses a behavior model to help illuminate factors that may contribute to repeat or chronic victimization by financial fraud schemes.

Looking at Chronic Fraud Victimization

According to AARP, “about one-in-ten U.S. adults are victims of fraud each year, losing billions of dollars annually to criminals through a variety of scams, including natural disaster scams, fake charities, fake prize promotions, and government imposter scams, such as Social Security and Medicare scams.”

“The drivers behind chronic fraud victimization have remained a mystery, so this study is an important step to being able to stop the cycle,” said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs and leader of the AARP Fraud Watch Network in a statement announcing the release of the study findings on March 4. “Chronic fraud can give targets and their families a sense of helplessness. By gaining a better understanding of the target’s drivers, we are hopeful there can be more meaningful interventions to disrupt and end the cycle,” notes Stokes.

Last year, the FINRA Foundation and the AARP Fraud Watch Network engaged Heart+Mind Strategies to deploy a four-phased study of chronic fraud victimization to uncover evidence-based concepts for effective interventions. The study’s goal was to generate new ways of thinking as to how to best support the individuals and families repeatedly targeted and victimized by financial scams and fraud. The study’s researchers accomplished this goal by reviewing existing literature, interviewing subject matter experts, chronic victims of financial fraud, and family members of victims, and finally, hosting two expert roundtables as a part of the study.

“This research provides a new lens through which to identify key intervention strategies that could disrupt the cycle of chronic fraud victimization at one or more points along the path to victimization,” adds Gerri Walsh, President of the FINRA Foundation. “We hope it stimulates additional attention to the need for effective interventions that may reduce chronic fraud victimization,” she says.

The 13-page study found that chronic fraud victimization may be a consequence of chronic susceptibility due to certain situational factors that disrupt judgement and derail good intentions. The researchers say that one of the most effective ways to reduce chronic fraud victimization may be to reduce chronic susceptibility. However, they note that chronic susceptibility can be challenging to identify and address. The study offers ideas for managing other factors, such as triggers that elicit an emotional response and the ability to access funds, which may be more scalable ways to reduce fraud victimization rates or counteract the negative consequences associated with being a victim.

The study identified the importance of fraud education but acknowledged that victims or would-be victims do not consider themselves as such, and consequently may not seek out help or absorb anti-fraud messaging. So, creating more in-the-moment education and intervention opportunities could be more effective approach, say the researchers. Partnering with clergy and counselors, or locations such as hair salons and churches, could provide more powerful messages and tools for potential or repeat victims, they note.

The researchers concluded that preventing chronic fraud victimization is a challenging task in the absence of interventions and individualized support.  However, even after a person has been scammed,  intervention is possible to lessen chronic fraud victimization and its impact.

Tapping into Free Resources

Anyone who suspects a fraud or has a family member experiencing chronic fraud can call the free AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or visit aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork for more information. The AARP Fraud Watch Network is a free resource that equips consumers with up-to-date knowledge to spot and avoid scams, and connects those targeted by scams with fraud helpline specialists, who provide support and guidance on what to do next. The Fraud Watch Network also advocates at the federal, state and local levels to enact policy changes that protect consumers and enforce laws.

Investors with questions or concerns surrounding their brokerage accounts and investments can also contact the FINRA Securities Helpline for Seniors toll free at 844-57-HELPS (844-574-3577) Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. ET. FINRA staff can help investors with concerns about potential fraud or unsuitable or excessive trading; answer questions about account statements or basic investment concepts, and assist beneficiaries who are having trouble locating or transferring their deceased parents’ assets.

According to AARP, the Washington, DC-based aging group and FINRA Foundation have a long history of collaboration on research and programs that explore and combat financial fraud. Working together, the Foundation and AARP Fraud Watch Network’s fraud fighter call centers, have conducted outreach to more than 1.7 million consumers, enabling them to identify, avoid and report financial fraud.

National Consumer Protection Week is a time to help people understand their consumer rights and make well-informed financial decisions about money.