With more products being added to the list of age-restricted items, what will enforcing online age verification mean for retailers? Alastair Graham, CEO of AgeChecked, explains
In the UK, it has long been the case that the legal age to purchase various age restricted products, such as alcohol and cigarettes, is 18. However, an impending addition to this list is any acid-based product that has more than a 10% concentration. This follows an announcement by Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, that the Government is set to pass legislation to ban selling such products to minors. The move comes as a reaction to recent findings that over a fifth of acid attacks in 2017 were carried out by people under the age of 18.
With the Government taking a tougher stance on enforcing age restriction laws, consultations are also underway to prevent children from being able to purchase knives online, following an increase in teenage knife crime in recent years.
While the sale of age-restricted goods to underage children can be easily prevented in-store by requesting physical identification, regulating online sales can be much more difficult. Online customers are often not required to prove their age when buying – for instance - household products such as bleach or alcohol, as they would be in the real world.
In the eyes of the law, the same rules apply to both bricks and mortar stores and online businesses and that must not be forgotten. Digital retailers that are failing to verify the age of customers before allowing them to purchase age-restricted goods are leaving themselves open to legal liability.
The implications for retailers that fail to verify a customer’s age
It is the responsibility of retailers, both on-and-offline, to ensure that their customers are of the correct legal age before allowing them to access any age restricted products or services. Neglecting this responsibility could lead to legal penalties, which can range from an unlimited fine or even a two-four year prison sentence, depending on the type and quantity of product that was sold.
But retailers don’t just face legal ramifications for selling to underage customers. Serious reputational damage can also be caused to those that fail to verify the age of their consumers online. In 2015, for instance, a 16-year-old boy purchased a knife through Amazon’s online store without having to prove his age. He later used the weapon to fatally stab and kill Bailey Gwynne, a local Aberdeen schoolboy.
This incident sparked national grief for Bailey’s family, but it also brought criticism upon Amazon for its lacklustre method of age-checking customers. Amazon has since established a policy whereby a signature from someone aged 18 or over is needed in order to receive the package. Yet, this tactic is still falling short of preventing underage sales, with packages often being left by delivery drivers and received by customers without the recording of a signature.
With this in mind, there needs to be a more appropriate and regulated method of preventing the sale of age restricted goods to minors to help retailers remain compliant with the law.
Age verification to authenticate the age of buyers
With the Digital Economy Act due to come into play in a few months, which will require customers to prove they are over 18 before they can access adult-only content online, site owners are coming under increasing pressure to find effective ways of ensuring all their customers are the correct age.
This is where digital age verification tools are proving invaluable.
The technology works by requiring a login when a user tries to access restricted content or buy restricted items. Users will firstly need to set up an account, with a secure password, and will need to choose from a selection of methods that can correctly ascertain their age. Currently, customers can use their mobile network, credit card or driving licence to verify their age, but there are more methods being added to the mix all the time. Once the account has been set up, they can simply use their password to sign into websites and access age restricted products or services in an instant.
Crucially, age verification systems, unlike identity systems, never store user data and provide customers with a completely anonymised account. Websites who use the service to verify their customers will only receive ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ notifications when customers attempt to access their site.
The new Act is due to come into force as early as April 2018 and it will bring online age verification to millions of UK citizens. The increased prevalence of age verification will increase pressure across all online businesses to give serious consideration as to how they are age-checking their customers. A simple tick-box stating that they are over 18 is clearly not going to be a defendable solution.
While the retail sector has instilled some age checking measures, such as requiring signatures from an adult upon delivery of goods, this is by no means the norm, and these methods are not going far enough to prevent all underage sales. Age verification tools are a legally compliant method of guaranteeing that those trying to access age restricted content are the correct age. Retailers now need to act accordingly to remain on the right side of the law, or they could face heavy fines, a damaged reputation, or even prison sentences.