Age verification – An age-old problem

Many children are still able to buy age restricted items such as alcohol, nicotine products and knives online. Retailers shouldn’t leave it to couriers to perform vital age checks, urges ParcelHero’s Head of Consumer Research, David Jinks.

Internet Age Verification

Hundreds of under-age children could be illegally receiving restricted goods from the internet every day because companies aren’t enforcing age checks.  Alcohol Concern say 15% of 14 and 15-year olds have bought booze online; and 16% of High School kids bought vapes in 2015, mostly online. And a recent Guardian report has revealed children can still get away with buying knives online by leaving a note for their courier saying they are out: avoiding age checks.

There is a strong case to be made that online sellers should use online technology to verify customers age – and not rely on ‘last line of defence’ face-to-face checks by couriers to comply with the law.

This is demonstrated in a recent study undertaken by auditor Serve Legal, which tested 1,000+ retailers that home deliver alcohol and found over half (56 per cent) were not checking ID at the point of delivery. (ParcelHero does not permit the shipping of alcohol on any of its bookings).

Many goods and services have an age restriction on them, and, amazingly, in many cases retailers are left to apply their own preferences for age verification: from online questions to leaving it to the courier to check ID. This freedom to choose how age verification is carried out on many products is adding to the general confusion and introducing too many loopholes for determined teenagers to exploit.

Online products and services that are restricted include:

  • Gaming
  • Betting (including lottery tickets and scratch cards)
  • Alcohol sales
  • Relationship sites
  • Fireworks
  • Knives
  • Tobacco and e-cigarettes
  • Entertainment (including games and DVDs with 12, 15 or 18 certificates)
  • Solvents
  • Medicines
  • Lighters and lighter refills containing butane
  • Weapons such as crossbows, airguns and pellets etc
  • Adult sites

How safe are the safeguards on selling these products to underage kids in the UK? The truth is that many retailers are left to interpret how to comply with regulations for themselves, and that different retailers may have very different ways of trying to enforce age verification. Even where the requirement to verify consumers’ age online is explicit, there is little guidance on how this should be done. The guidance to the Licensing Act, for example, simply states: “Age verification measures (for example, online age verification) should be used to ensure that alcohol is not sold to any person under the age of 18.”

Still currently valid in the UK are Age affirmation pages (AAPs) and checkboxes – effectively systems of self-certification that just require the user to either click to confirm they are over 18, or enter their date of birth. There is no mechanism in place to verify whether the date of birth is actually correct or has been falsified – they only calculate whether or not the year entered is 18 years ago or more. It’s fair to say that neither of these measures are particularly robust!

Will simple self-certification AAPs, which rely solely on the consumer to give a truthful answer, stand up in court? And are they fit for purpose with the new tech-savvy Generation X post-millennials, who have grown up online and are scarcely going to let a text box put them off?

It’s a concern both for parents and retailers. Eight of ten (79%) of those working in e-commerce say they’re concerned or very concerned about selling age restricted goods or services to minors – even with their current age verification methods in place.

Well might e-commerce professionals be concerned. In the UK retailers are legally obliged to ensure they do not sell age-restricted products to people under the legal age of purchase. In the eyes of the law, it is not a parental responsibility to prevent this. This means retailers have a legal obligation to set up an effective system to ensure they can verify the age of the purchaser.

Where a retailer sells an age restricted product to an underage individual, their age verification system, and having taken all reasonable precautions, will be the only defense that could save them from a criminal conviction. Regulatory penalties for selling age-restricted goods to minors include fines, licensing reviews and even imprisonment.

Currently there are many possible ways a retailer can determine customers’ ages. As well as the obvious and flawed customer self-certification: (tick box/date of birth entry) discussed, other methods include:

  • Identity document scanning
  • Credit card verification
  • Age restricted products can be purchased online, and the customer must show identification to complete the transaction in-store or on delivery
  • Checking against the electoral roll
  • Know Your Customer (KYC) checks via specialist credit check or identity check software


The problem for retailers is that – as we have seen – not all of the methods are equally robust; and indeed, some completely fail to meet all the requirements needed to be a legal defense for retailers.

According to Unlock the Law past court case decisions give an indication as to what measures will be deemed acceptable and what will not pass the test:

Checks unlikely to satisfy the test:

  • Relying on the purchaser confirming they are over the minimum age
  • Asking the purchaser simply to give a date of birth
  • Using tick boxes to ask purchasers to confirm they are over the minimum age when buying online.
  • A general disclaimer, for example: ‘anyone ordering this product from our website will be deemed to be18 years or older’.
  • Using a terms and conditions statement for the purchaser to confirm they are over the minimum age
  • Using e-payment services such as PayPal. Whilst these services may require a customer to be over 18, they may not verify a purchaser’s age.

Proper Age verification checks:

  • Payment by credit card – Credit cards are generally available only to those over 18. Payment by credit card (as opposed to debit card) could verify that the principal cardholder for the credit card is over 18.
  • Carrying out standard age verification checks on delivery
  • Online age verification software – These systems make use of various sources of information in order to verify age and identity during the purchasing process. These checks include using the electoral register and credit reference agencies.
  • In-store collection

How do such ‘proper’ verification checks work?

Credit card verification: This requires credit card holders to verify that they are in possession of the card using methods such as Card Verification Value (CVV), Address Verification System (AVS), and 3D Secure. This binds ownership to the person buying online, with the knowledge that the customer has to be over 18 to apply for a credit card.

Identity document checks in person:  ID documents to be checked, whether in-store or on delivery. This could include authenticating hardcopy identity documents (such as a passport or driving licence) to confirm the age of a subject.

Online age verification:  Verification software can be very sophisticated and encompasses a wide range of solutions. It can offer a seamless integration by adding a date of birth field to the checkout process. Personal information is instantly cross referenced with consumer data sets and credit bureau data to check the customer’s age.

Some of these more sophisticated age verification programmes can be built into websites very unobtrusively to present a tailored and unobtrusive approach to age checking. Easily added to websites, the software creates gateways that redirect website users based on their age, meaning that those who do not meet the minimum age requirement are prevented from purchasing goods that are age-restricted, or even entering sections of websites that host age-restricted content.


What law applies to what product?

As we have seen, age verification issues present a potential minefield for retailers and a puzzle for parents. But these are not the only issues that prevent a simple solution to stopping under age purchases. UK laws themselves are not always very specific about online sales age-related issues – indeed some of our retail laws predate the internet entirely.

In some cases, requirements for online sales are explicit. Revised Guidance issued under the Licensing Act 2003, for example, makes it clear that the requirements apply equally to remote sales, whether telephone, mail order or online. However, in other cases, the law simply relies on existing prohibitions on sales to those under 18, such as those in place for knives, under the Criminal Justice Act 1988; fireworks, under the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2010; and cigarettes, under the Children and Young Persons (Sale of Tobacco etc.) Order 2007.

And separate Acts with their own requirements cover online gambling, e-cigarettes, etc.

Gradually, however the law is catching up with changing technology. After a teenager was found guilty of killing a 16-year-old schoolboy with a knife bought online through Amazon in 2016, the UK Government launched consultations to ban the home deliveries of knives bought online. Buyers will have to collect in person and retailers must verify they are over 18, in one of series of anti-knife crime measures.

And under new powers contained in the Digital Economy Act, which passed through Parliament earlier this year, a regulator will be able to block porn websites that fail to show that they are denying access to under-18s. Again, the Act does not specify the means of proving age for access to adult content online. The regulator will be required to ensure that methods are “robust” and go beyond simply ticking a box or typing in a date of birth to say that the user is over 18.

It is thought likely that credit card data could be the likely means of enforcing the regulation initially.


Who else is responsible?

As well as retailers, should other parties be made a part of legal age verification schemes? Some experts suggest credit card companies should have a stronger role to play. The UK Card Association does not entirely agree however. It says: “Card companies seek to comply fully with the law, but they have no legal responsibility to check what a young person may try to buy or take a moral position on how cards are used. The onus is on retailers to ensure that their customer is of legal age.’

As the UK cards industry uses a global payments infrastructure, this makes age-related sales a global problem requiring a global solution that meets the requirements of different markets. “Age limits vary within different countries (e.g. alcohol: 18 in the UK but 21 in the USA), this may mean that an inflexible one-size-fits-all solution is unlikely to work and that an age parameter would be required,” says the Association.

Social media companies could also have a role to play – perhaps as part of online age verification software. Clearly social media and online games companies have their own problems with age verification issues though.  A Court in California ruled in 2012 that Facebook must face a class-action lawsuit in the US, after the company refused to provide refunds to parents whose children spent their money on the social network without permission.

And Apple recently entered into a consent agreement with the US Federal Trade Commission and agreed to refund consumers up to $32.5 million to settle the FTC’s complaint that the company billed consumers for millions of dollars of charges incurred by children in kids’ mobile apps without their parents’ consent.

Both examples are under American law, but do show some of the problems facing even the biggest online retailers.


Should retailers leave it to the courier?

Despite all the legal obligations and penalties, and the sophisticated technological solutions available to prevent selling items to minors; there are still many online sellers that leave it to their own drivers – or even their courier companies – to do their age checking. A distinctly last-minute approach to such a knotty problem.

Some retailers still own their own fleet of delivery vehicles and employ their own drivers. They may use their drivers as a last line of defence, undertaking face to face check during the delivery. A business using its own delivery service needs to ensure staff are aware of the policy regarding the delivery of age restricted items. Retailers need to take ownership of this − relaying the importance of these checks to their staff and ensuring the policy is followed.

Most retailers today, however, use third-party delivery companies and couriers to deliver items. More home deliveries are taking place today than ever before; and couriers are under pressure to deliver efficiently and on time. As well as being skilled drivers and efficient and friendly delivery professionals; should they really ought to be gatekeepers ensuring there are no more under-aged deliveries taking place? Given the online technology now available to check ID and age; and the very real potential dangers that can surround the delivery of alcohol or weapons to underage youngsters, the use of the driver as the last-minute ID checker seems a failed approach to ID verification.

Because of their third-party status, the courier may not be fully informed of age checks required for a specific delivery, while others may not have the processes in place in order to order to check age.

We all like our delivery drivers to use their initiative and be flexible if we find ourselves unexpectedly out when our delivery arrives. But if drivers are routinely the only age verification check involved in a sale, then they won’t be able to leave your items in your porch or behind the gate, etc, because of the legal responsibility on them. That means we would all face many more re-deliveries or visits to drop off sites or depots.

And unless we equip drivers with highly sophisticated new technology, their visual check or request to see a passport or similar is never going to be as thorough as the latest online age verification software, and will increase delivery delays.

In the new era of tech-led e-commerce, do we really want to leave it to the busy driver to be responsible for age checking – or should that all be done smoothly and securely much earlier in the whole transaction?



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