Life before the Internet


By Sondra Shapiro

There is much said about how technology befuddles older people. Sure, I’ve witnessed some of this with my in-laws. Nice, intelligent folks. Yet they are not at all interested in learning about computers, the Internet or emailing. It seems so foreign to them — even scary. Now I am beginning to think they are on to something. Could their technophobia be warranted after all?

A result of this technology-based era, and the new and/or improved products and services that come with it, is an over complication of bills for everyday expenses such as cable, phone, Internet, fuel, electric and other household utilities. Statements are pages long, with charges for items we can’t even begin to identify. Have you taken a really close look at your phone bill lately?

True, I have been seduced by the world that has opened up to me through my MacBook. Yet the electronics that offer convenience also make us financially vulnerable. Privacy is a rare commodity these days — Strangers have easy access to our buying habits, salaries, interests and more. It was disturbing to learn from a recent 60 Minutes segment how easy it is for data brokers — who gather and sell consumer profiles to other companies — to access our computers. One data broker boasted that it has, on average, 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans, according to the 60 Minutes piece.

sshapiro_headshotHow I long for the days of simple, one-page utility bills that can be paid by cash or check at the local market. When a sense of privacy was respected and mostly honored. Yes, I can relate to my octogenarian in-laws.

This empathy began shortly after Cyber Monday, the shopping bonanza right after Thanksgiving when online retailers presumably offer huge bargains. Armed with a stash of coupons that were emailed to me for use on that day, I approached the occasion with voracious zeal, racking up a modest inventory of clothing for myself and gift items.

I was persuaded by promises of free shipping, speedy delivery and no tax. I boasted to my husband how much bang for my buck I was getting without having to get in the car and fight the crowds at the mall.

Then I was jolted back to reality. First, it was the notification that most of my purchases were backordered. Then I was charged extra for some of the merchandise because it turned out those online coupons and cyber Monday sales items had very big caveats attached — ones that were not very clear even after reading the small print.

When the first delivery arrived, the majority of the items were damaged or did not fit the website description.

My husband was experiencing his own buyer’s remorse. After purchasing mobile telephone accessories online, he was told they were backordered. When they finally arrived, some of the merchandise was incorrect; the rest broke after two weeks.

Exacerbating our frustration was our experiences with online customer service. We were lulled into a false sense of security by the “live” and immediate online chats with individuals who seemed eager to help us — that is until we tried to convey our issues. That’s when it was clear that customer service was outsourced to individuals from countries not fully versed in our language.

Long story short, the aggravation and ultimately the lack of savings made us realize we would have been better off heading to the mall.

To quote a very apt cliché, when it rains it pours. As a convenience — and in keeping with our desire to be respectful toward the environment — we recently converted some of our monthly expenses to online billing and payment. Now our mortgage, utilities and cable expenses are either automatically deducted from our bank account or we can submit payments electronically.

While it sounds convenient, we have experienced more issues than if we had just continued having bills delivered by our trusty mail carrier. Among double billings, supposed missed payments and downright incorrect amounts charged for each service, the practice is no time saver. We now assume every bill is incorrect and in need of closer scrutiny,

This mistrust is reinforced every time we turn on the news and hear about security breaches thanks to our personal information being tracked and stored electronically by retail outlets. After using our credit card for a small purchase at Target last fall, we learned hackers stole information from 110 million customers.

To be clear, I am highly computer literate. And, I don’t intend on curbing my online purchase of vacations, medicines, clothing and other items. Nor, do I plan to shred my credit card. Though I admit that in some ways I long for the simplicity of my youth when most purchases were made at stores downtown using cash or checks. If we were a bit short on cash, layaway was a safe option.

While there has always been crime, the electronic age has enabled crooks to steal our identities and money with relative ease and in disturbing volume.

So, this new age is going through growing pains. I am sure my laments are shared among all ages.

Yet, part of me cannot fault the 62 percent of people 75 and older who still don’t own a computer, according to recent surveys. Perhaps they and my in-laws have it right.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at And follow her online at, or