The internet has changed the world as we know it. It’s 2016 and you can now buy practically anything online – clothing, groceries, flights abroad and even family pets! The internet has it all.

[easy-tweet tweet=”UK retailers are still failing to verify the age of customers online before selling them age-restricted items”]

But, as the world enters a more digitalised era, and with increasing numbers of businesses expanding their operations online, what happens when the goods or services they offer carry an age-restriction?

This is where online age checks come in and it’s an issue that has been gaining increased awareness of late. In fact, earlier this year the Queen mentioned online age checks in her speech while location-based dating app, Tinder, announced last month that it was upping its minimum user age, in the face of mounting public pressure.

But Tinder isn’t the first company to come under fire for not doing enough to protect youngsters from the perils of the internet. Earlier this year, Amazon faced heavy criticism, and arguably suffered reputational damage, when it came to light that the 16-year-old who was convicted of fatally stabbing Aberdeen schoolboy Bailey Gwynne had bought the knife on Amazon. To make matters worse, no age checks were carried out – not even when the item was delivered; it was instead left in a shed.

This has led to promises from the government to crack down on those not adequately protecting under-18s from accessing age-restricted goods and services. Businesses now need to review the measures they currently have in place and ensure these are stringent enough. After all, no one pities the off-licence caught selling cigarettes and vodka to 14-year-olds, so why should online businesses be any different?

Responsibility lies with business

As online age checks grow in awareness, more and more businesses operating on the web are beginning to realise the responsibility lies with them to have effective age checks in place. Accusing parents of ‘a lack of control’ over their children’s use of the internet is diminishing in its validity as an excuse for those businesses trying to dodge responsibility.

Sifting out customers who do not meet the legal minimum required age is imperative in helping businesses to stay on the right side of the law. In order to do this, websites need to have online age-checking measures in place. With any service that is adopted to protect a business, these services need to be periodically monitored in order to ensure they continue to meet business needs.

As technology and regulation advance, novel ways to check the age of customers are being introduced. This means businesses can benefit from a fluid approach to age checking – installing multiple technologies on their sites, or using service providers who adopt new technologies as they become available.

What could happen to a business that fails to verify its customers’ ages?

The implications for a business that fails to verify the age of a customer before granting access to anything with an age restriction can be serious. And yet, even with the Amazon revelation, another study since found some of the UK’s biggest retailers are still failing to verify the age of customers online before selling them age-restricted items. These scandals can leave a permanent mark on a business and besmirch its reputation.

There are also are legal implications to consider as well and this cannot and should not be taken lightly. For any business selling or granting access to age-restricted goods, content or services to anyone under the minimum required age, individuals deemed responsible could face up to two years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

What are the downfalls of the current age-verification checks online businesses are using?

Once upon a time, merely asking: “Are you over 18?” sufficed as an age check for businesses who sold age-restricted goods and services. But times have changed and, as we now live in an era predominantly shaped by information technology, businesses operating within this sphere will have to find technology that can mirror the age checks relied upon in the offline world.

But unfortunately, this is not yet the case in many instances. At present, there are many websites that still only ask a customer to click a box to confirm they are over-18. Similarly, there are also many websites that simply ask a customer to enter a date of birth. There is no mechanism in place to verify whether or not 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.

Then there’s the delivery of the items. For a number of businesses operating online, a third party courier is used to deliver any goods. Because of the third party status, the courier may not feel obliged to ask for proof of age from customers of another company while others may not have the processes in place to order to check age. This is demonstrated in the 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.

The public are becoming more informed and more vocal about businesses failing to verify ages of customers they sell age-restricted goods to. On top of this, the government will soon be making moves and introducing further measures to punish businesses not playing their part. Companies need to seriously consider a strategy and review the measures they already have in place to ensure youngsters are not gaining access to things they shouldn’t be. It’s of paramount important that companies begin to introduce more stringent checks in order to ensure they keep their reputation, and ultimately business, intact.

What preventative online age-verification measures are available to businesses?

Online age-checking mechanisms are available which can be implemented at the point that a product or service (which may be inappropriate to minors) is about to be displayed to a customer. An alternative to this, and what is referred to as a ‘payment-gate’, is an age check that sits within the buying process and prevents a payment transaction taking place to someone under-aged.

For goods that are purchased online and delivered in the real world, the last line of defence is the face-to-face check at the point of delivery. Learning from the mistakes of Amazon, businesses should consider implementing a policy to ensure a proof of age is presented upon in the delivery of items. It’s up to the business to consult with any third party courier services they use in order to inform them of whether or not an age-restricted item is to be delivered and whether or not age-verification checks need to be done at the door. A business using its own delivery service needs to ensure staff are aware of the policy regarding the delivery of age restricted items.

These measures are pretty straightforward but it is important to remember they are not 100 per cent fool-proof. There are, however, more innovative measures emerging that allow businesses to implement more robust age-verification checks. One such example is AgeChecked – a software that pulls information and data from a range of sources to verify the age of a customer. 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 entering sections of websites that host age-restricted content.

AgeChecked appears simplistic – easy and quick for customers to use – yet it incorporates a wide range of age checking methods working over 160 countries worldwide. Designed to work seamlessly within shopping carts, payment pages, or content delivery , it is an example of one of the new generation of age-checking services that are emerging to meet the requirements of the online age.

[easy-tweet tweet=”With increased awareness online age-checking is not going away” hashtags=”AgeCheck”]

With increased awareness and it now being an issue on the government’s agenda, online age-checking is not going away. Preventing under-18s from accessing goods, services and content that are age-restricted is becoming a necessity for businesses. And now is the time to act – businesses that don’t or are slow on the uptake will face not only reputational damage but may also no longer exist if a hefty enough fine is imposed.

For more information, please visit: http://agechecked.com

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Alastair Graham, CEO of AgeChecked Alastair Graham is Chief Executive of agechecked.com, a solution provider for online retailers of age-restricted goods and services. He has worked in the regulated payment industry (EMIs) since 2006. Since co-founding a prepaid card business in 2007 that specialised in the gaming industry, he has established and run payment companies within the UK and abroad. Alastair is a regular contributor to conferences for the advanced payments industry, and is co-chair of the public affairs committee of the Prepaid International Forum. He also sits on the DPA's Age Verification working group.