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“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. 

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 technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Jake Paul via YouTube
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We should overcome our instinct to mock Jake Paul’s school shooting video

The urge to mock the ex-Disney star diminishes the victims he speaks to and ignores the good YouTubers can do.  

It’s very “darkest timeline”. Ex-Disney star Jake Paul (brother of vlogger Logan Paul, who infamously filmed the dead body of a suicide victim) has created a 22-minute documentary about the Parkland school shooting in which he greets Florida senator Marco Rubio with the words “Hey, what’s up man?” and doesn’t mention gun control once. 

Paul – who has previously made headlines for setting fire to a swimming pool – goes on to ask the politician: “I think like a lot of people think passing laws is super easy, can you explain some of the struggles around, uh, passing laws?”

It’s hard to not immediately balk at the documentary, which was released yesterday and has since been widely mocked by the press and individual journalists. Critics note that Paul doesn’t mention gun reform within the YouTube video, and many mock his conduct towards Rubio. Others accuse the video of being an insincere PR move, particularly as Paul has previously fetishised guns on his YouTube channel – and has a tattoo of a gun on his thigh.

21-year-old Jake Paul talks and conducts himself like a child, which is what makes the video immediately jarring (“I just wanna become homies with them and just be there for them,” he says of the Parkland survivors he is about to meet). There is a vacant – almost dumb – expression on his face when he speaks with Rubio, leading the viewer to question just how much the YouTube star understands. But this is precisely the value of the video. Paul is a child talking to an audience of children – and talking to them on their terms.

YouTube doesn’t disclose the exact demographics of a YouTuber’s audience, but fan videos and Paul’s comment section reveal that most of his 14 million subscribers are young children and teens. Paul is introducing these children to a politician, and the video is edited so that Rubio’s claims don’t go unchecked – with footage of the senator being criticised by Parkland survivors playing in between shots of Paul and Rubio’s chat.

Paul (admittedly unintentionally) asks the senator questions a child might ask, such as “Is there anything that people can look forward to? Is there anything new that you’re working on?”. Although this might be jarring for adults to watch, the comment section of Paul’s video reveals it is already positively affecting his young audience.

“Definitely going to speak out now,” writes one. Another: “I shared this to my Mum and asked her to show the head teacher so everyone do that as well.” Childishness is still transparently at play – one commenter writes “Plzzz Stop the Guns… it hurts my feeling I’m crying… 1 like = 10 Pray to Florida” – but this too shows that Paul has introduced new concepts to kids previously more concerned with online pranks and viral fame.

Of course, it’s easy to see how this might be a cynical move on Paul’s part. Yet how can we demand more from YouTubers and then criticise them when they deliver it? Paul’s video is far from perfect, but engaging children in genuine discussions about current affairs is a commendable move, one far superior to his prior acts. (Paul previously caused controversy by telling a fan from Kazakhstan that he “sounds like you’re just going to blow someone up”, and his diss-track “It’s Everyday Bro” is third most disliked video on YouTube). Like it or not, Paul has an incredible influence over young people – at least he is finally using it for good.

Paul’s video has also undeniably helped at least one teen. “It’s just easier to talk about what’s going on with someone like you than a doctor or someone,” Jonathan Blank – a Parkland survivor – tells the YouTuber in the video. Later, his mother praises Paul through her tears. “It was the best therapy for my son,” she says, “You didn’t have an agenda, you cared.”

Other Parkland survivors are angry at the media’s response to the video. Kyle Kashuv – also interviewed in the documentary – has tweeted multiple times since the video’s release. “Media has the utter audacity to mock my classmates and Senator Rubio for doing the interview ON MY REQUEST AND THE REQUEST OF TWO OTHER STUDENTS,” he wrote.  

“If you mock a video where my classmates, that witnessed their friends get murdered in cold blood, are crying and putting their hearts on their sleeve, be prepared to be hit back twice as hard.”

Kashuv differs from the most famous group of Parkland survivors, as the teen supports the STOP School Violence Act over national gun reform. Yet the teen’s politics do not make his thoughts or feelings less valid, or his voice less important in the conversation. While critics note Paul spoke little of gun reform in his video (instead he suggested that schools have bullet proof glass and Instagram should flag pro-gun posts), the YouTuber later tweeted to clarify his stance.

“Gun Reform changes we need in my opinion,” he wrote. Paul went on to suggest that anyone who wants to buy a gun should be 21, go through a six month training course, and have a mental health evaluation. He also tweeted that gun shows should be banned and there should be a “30 day wait period after purchase to receive firearm”.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Paul is right, or has all the answers, or is even equipped to discuss this topic sensitively. Yet his promise to pay for busses to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC, alongside the fact he didn’t monetise his YouTube documentary, speak of someone at least trying to do some good. “We all want the same thing and that’s to make schools safe,” he says in the video. Although he gives Rubio and the STOP School Violence Act a platform, he is dismissive of their impact.

“Kind of why I wanted to make this video in the first place is to activate parents and kids within their own schools and communities, that’s the way things are going to get done the fastest. We don’t to wait for hundreds of people in Washington DC to pass the laws,” he says.

Though the description to Paul’s video was most likely written by a far-more savvy PR, it’s hard to disagree with. “I vow to be part of the solution and utilise my platform to raise awareness and action across the board, but we cannot focus on one issue, we must actively discuss and make progress on them all,” it reads.

The criticism of Paul smacks of the old media sneering at the new media, galled and appalled that a 21-year-old YouTuber would dare wade into politics and do so less than perfectly. Concerns about propriety and morality are a veil to disguise a pervasive distaste for YouTube stars. Criticisms that his suggested solutions are stupid ignore the fact that it’s not his job to reform society. It’s like having a go at Sesame Street for not criticising Theresa May.

YouTubers might not be the idols that adults wish teenagers had, but we can’t change that. What we can do is encourage viral stars to engage with important issues, and not mock them when they do so less than brilliantly. Jake Paul may not be a good person – it might even be a stretch to describe the video as “good”. But the YouTuber made an effort that should be commended, not mocked. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.