“He thought it was normal”: how a man with Alzheimer’s was charged £110 a month for TV

"Talk to your elderly friends and relatives, check they're not being ripped off," warns his niece. 

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Rachel Holdsworth’s uncle knew exactly how much he was paying for his TV channels – but he thought that it was “normal”. Rachel recently discovered that her 72-year-old uncle Rodney, who has Alzheimer’s, was paying £110 a month to Sky for his TV and phone package. “I was a mixture of baffled and also furious,” she says, “because your instant reaction is he’s being ripped off.”

Rodney is on a basic pension and has lived in the same two-bedroom council flat for 35 years. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – and Rachel says he “doesn’t quite know” the state of his finances. This morning, she had to turn down an appearance on Good Morning Britain. “If he sees me on the telly he’ll just freak out,” she says.

When Rachel discovered her uncle’s bills, she went viral on Twitter – with many outraged about her experiences. After Rodney agreed to allow Rachel’s mother to view his bank statements, the family discovered he was paying £110 to Sky, as well as £120 a month for his gas and electricity. “He’s not a wealthy person,” says Rachel of her uncle, who she describes as a quiet man who “lives for” his cricket. “It's not like he’s got a huge amount of cash knocking around.”

The story has shed light on how businesses profit from the vulnerable and elderly. Rachel originally thought her uncle’s high bill was because he had been mis-sold broadband (he doesn’t own a computer and has never been online) but after talking with Sky, thinks the price rose after her uncle’s original deal expired and the cost of the package rose. “We reckon that whatever bill he’d originally been on had expired and they just kept going up and he never queried it.”

Although Rachel’s uncle wasn’t mis-sold broadband, his story has everything to do with the internet. Vulnerable customers can’t get online to compare different providers or check whether their bill is normal. “People are probably aware of what they’re paying but they’re not aware that they’re being ripped off, they’re not aware they’re being rinsed,” explains Rachel, who believes companies like Sky should check on customers with particularly high bills.

Rachel was also frustrated with the “computer says no” attitude of Sky’s team. After exchanging online messages with Sky about her uncle’s personal details, Rachel was refused help because she didn’t know Rodney’s password – and nor did he. Only when Rachel started tweeting about the problem – with thousands sharing her tweets – did Sky rectify the issue, halving her uncle’s monthly bill.

“There is absolutely no way, I certainly believe there is no way, that without Twitter kicking off I would have got in touch with the executive office. It would have been a brick wall,” says Rachel. After being passed onto the accessibility team who once again said nothing could be done without a password, Sky got back in touch to escalate the issue to its executive office after Rachel’s tweets went “a little bit crazy”.

There are now tens of replies to Rachel’s tweets indicating that many others have been in the same situation. Tracy Crocker saw the viral tweets and replied, sharing her own experiences. "My dad has Parkinson's and he used to get a lot of calls [where] companies would talk him into buying products and services that he didn't need or couldn't access," she tells me. "He would get easily confused and sales people would add extras that were unnecessary or persuade him that he needed them."

Parkinson's means that Tracy's 76-year-old father has memory problems and difficulty processing information, meaning he can't take in a lot of information presented to him at once. Only when Tracy and her 75-year-old mother got power of attorney - a legal document that allows you to act on behalf of the vulnerable - did the issue fully come to light. Tracy's father had signed up for multiple TV packages despite not owning a satellite dish, while IT companies would cold call and offer help with his computer. 

"It does make me really cross and sad that some unscrupulous businesses are knowingly targeting and taking advantage of elderly people or people with dementia," says Tracy. To illustrate her father's vulnerabilty she tells a quick story. "[He] decided he needed a new lawnmower so he went to the garden shop and chatted over his needs with the sales man. He finally agreed on a shiny new ride-on mower. All bells and whistles. He paid in full on a card.

"A few weeks later Mum was called about delivery... but the house they live in had no access whatsoever to the back garden. There was also a small stream with a bridge, so there was no chance that the mower could ever get to the grass! Crazy!" Thankfully, the company agreed to a refund. 

Rachel believes that Sky isn’t especially to blame in regards to her uncle, as there are “about six or seven” companies she is going to have to call about Rodney's bills. “Companies need to properly brief their customer service staff about these potential situations and yes, I think they need to have policies in place if somebody can’t meet the usual account access requirements,” she says.

Companies that rely on customers ringing up to get discounts or shop around she deems unethical: "It's unfairly penalising the vulnerable.” 

Sky – whose accessibility team were trained by the charity Dementia Friends – has apologised for the incident and discounted Rodney’s bill. “We’re sorry for the problems Mrs Holdsworth experienced trying to access her uncle’s account details. Having looked into her concerns, we’ve been able to reassure Mrs Holdsworth that her uncle’s package has not been changed or upgraded since he took it out four years ago. We’ll now work with Mrs Holdsworth to ensure he is on the best package for his needs,” a Sky spokesperson said.

Yet Dr Hilda Hayo, CEO of Dementia UK, believes companies like Sky should – like many utilities companies – be committed to telling their customers whether they are on the cheapest tariff or not. “We get many calls to our Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline from worried relatives who are unable to find out what contracts the person they care for is locked into,” she says. “Until these companies curb these hard sell tactics, no doubt more and more of these stories will emerge on social media. We advise worried relatives to go through their paperwork and speak with the companies about being added as a named person on the account.”

Without Twitter, Rodney’s story wouldn’t be headline news – and his bill would still be sky high. That the elderly and vulnerable need internet and social media savvy relatives to solve their problems indicates a failure on the behalf of many. Rachel has nearly 3,000 Twitter followers – had she had less, her uncle could still be forking out £110 a month to watch the cricket.

“Even before [Alzheimer’s] he’s always been quite a naive and trusting person,” she says, “He's not really equipped to deal with the modern world.”

Anyone with questions or worries about dementia, including how to help a person with dementia with their finances, can call the Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline on 0800 888 6678.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

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