“Got any ID?” is the original age verification check that seems to have been around since minimum age requirements were written into law. It’s a face-on question used in store to sift out those who are not yet old enough to gain entry into bars or buy cigarettes at a newsagent.

And yet, with growing numbers of online retailers and the ease of which people can hide behind a screen, this once seemingly robust mechanism with which to deter underage individuals from purchasing age-restricted products, is losing its effectiveness.

This is not just consigned to the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes online either. Earlier this year it was revealed that the 16-year-old found guilty of stabbing Aberdeen schoolboy Bailey Gwynne to death, bought the murder weapon on Amazon without having his age first verified.

With pressure mounting on both the government and retailers to do more to protect children online, age verification is becoming an increasingly topical issue. Just last month, the government united with major brands operating online such as Tesco, Amazon and Ebay to create an agreement of principles to tackle youth knife crime. Furthermore, age verification was an issue included in the Queen’s Spring Speech just last week.

Online age verification is a growing concern and without investing in measures to protect kids from buying age-restricted items, businesses could be breaking the law and end up facing heavy penalties.

Where are brands and retailers currently going wrong online?

It seems enough isn’t being done – whether that’s Amazon not checking the age of those purchasing blades or retailers home-delivering alcohol to under-18s. In fact, a recent study by auditor Serve Legal found that online alcohol sales are becoming a “major concern” with more than half (56%) of the 1,000+ online retailers, tested over the past three years, not checking for ID at the point of delivery.

It’s also worth mentioning that not all online outlets have their own delivery service and instead depend on third party couriers to deliver their goods. Those that do provide their own delivery service may be more inclined to ask for ID than a third party who may not feel liable.

At present, many of the measures in place rely on the purchaser – for instance, certain websites only ask for a date of birth or ask users to tick a box to state they’re over 18, both of which can be easily fabricated.

Other websites will use a generic disclaimer merely stating that anyone ordering from their website ‘will be deemed 18’ or will request users to ‘accept’ a statement to confirm they’re over the minimum age and have read the terms and conditions.

In our ever-digitalised world, the ease with which young people can circumvent these basic age-verification checks means businesses are leaving themselves liable in the eyes of the law. The measures in place are more often than not there as a tick box exercise and it seems e-commerce businesses are not taking enough responsibility or doing enough to protect kids and in turn, protect themselves.

What do insufficient age verification checks mean for businesses?

The burden is on retailers and website owners to verify the age of a purchaser before selling them age-restricted goods. Just as expected in-store, a business must enforce an age verification check to ensure they don’t sell restricted items to those who do not meet the legal minimum age requirement.

The onus is also on the seller to ensure their age verification systems and policies are regularly monitored, tested and updated. This is important to help identify any issues or problems within the systems or software they use and quickly rectify them. Regular testing and updates also mean that their software can develop and mature alongside the continuous advances in technology.

Online outlets which sell age-restricted goods, such as knives, alcohol, fireworks, tobacco and video games to under-18s could face up to two years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

So what can businesses do to protect themselves online?

There are precautionary measures businesses can and should take to ensure they do not break the law. While there is always a margin of error, these measures minimise the risk.

Making it a requirement for all potential customers to set up an ‘account’ and register their details is one way to sift out under-18s. It also means that age verification checks need only be done once – at the initial purchase.

Another method through which a website can verify a customer’s age is when a customer opts to use a credit card. As credit cards can only be taken out by over-18s, payment via this method can serve as a somewhat rudimentary age check. However, credit cards are not as popular as debit cards in the UK for online purchases and therefore this is only a partial solution – adopting this as the sole age-check measure could therefore lead to loss of business.

Checking the age of customers at the point of delivery, is another measure online brands should consider. Failing to do this is what lead to the criticism currently being faced by Amazon. Something as simple as delivery drivers requesting proof of age before handing over any age-restricted goods will help alleviate such items falling into underage hands. However, businesses need to take ownership of this – relaying the importance of these checks to their staff or couriers and ensuring the policy is followed.

There are, of course, more innovative products on the market which can verify age such as AgeChecked. This is a software that pulls information from a range of sources, verifying age during the buying process. AgeChecked provides websites with an age-gateway that works to route incoming traffic based on age – so anyone falling outside of the agreed gateway will be diverted from entering a website selling restricted goods. This unique product also uses a one-click system which lessens the risk of basket abandonment and improves the overall experience of users.

With the issue of online age verification becoming an increasingly political and topical one, the pressure is on for businesses operating online to deliver solutions. Failing this, businesses and their owners could find themselves on the wrong side of the law and on the receiving end of an unlimited fine, or worse – jail time. With the ongoing criticism of Amazon and pressure mounting across the board, it’s never been more important for online brands to make sure they’ve got the measures in place online to protect kids and in turn, protect themselves from the full wrath of the law.


By Alastair Graham, CEO of AgeChecked


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