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Devise measures to protect elderly from predatory online shopping practices

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
An image photo : Small toy shopping cart is seen in front of displayed Amazon logo in this illustration taken, July 30, 2021.

An increasing number of senior citizens are involved in problems related to online shopping.

It is necessary to create a system to alert elderly people about fraudulent business practices, providing specific examples of problems, and to strengthen measures to prevent them from incurring damages.

According to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, a record high of about 110,000 cases of problems linked to such services as online shopping involving people in their 60s or older were reported to the center in fiscal 2020. It was the first time the figure has exceeded 100,000. About 60% of the cases involved transactions on the internet, including major online shopping websites.

In the past, consultations by elderly people have been mostly about door-to-door or phone-solicitation sales. Increases in the use of smartphones and other digital devices, as well as the increase in the amount of time spent at home due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, are likely to have had an impact on the rise in the number of such problems.

Many of the online shopping problems involve transactions in which customers are attracted at first by extremely low prices during a “trial” period, but then find they have a contract to buy the products on a regular basis, and sales in which customers have to buy products that online firms send to them even if they did not order them.

Cases include a person who was “unable to successfully cancel a video streaming service so had to continue to pay for the subscription by credit card” and another whose “great-grandfather signed up for the latest model of a smartphone when he went to a shop alone to inquire about a problem with his cell phone.”

The digitization of society should be used to improve the convenience of senior citizens. If such problems increase, it could end up in putting the cart before the horse.

As part of a project to promote digitization, the government is supporting seminars mainly to teach elderly people and others how to use smartphones. It is also necessary to thoroughly inform them of the risks involved in using digital devices.

A watchdog network based on the Consumer Safety Law is a framework for protecting elderly people from problems involving the internet. The network involves local governments, police, welfare organizations, volunteers and others, who share information on problems quickly to prevent damages from spreading.

The network will not be effective if relevant organizations only share information among themselves. They must also actively communicate with elderly people. It is necessary to strengthen the functions of the network.

The family members of elderly people and people around them should also play an important role. People must be vigilant if they see such warning signs as an increase in the number of unfamiliar or unused items in the homes of elderly people or if they notice periodical payments.

It is important to talk with elderly people on a daily basis about where to seek advice regarding such problems. It is also vital to regularly contact and visit elderly people who live alone.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Oct. 8, 2021.