Why age verification matters to online businesses

Online age-verification is gaining such traction that it was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech this Spring as one of the focuses of the UK government’s agenda for the coming session.

In fact, just last week one of the world’s most popular dating apps, Tinder, gave in to growing pressure and announced plans to increase its minimum user age. This decision followed a public outcry at the increasing cases of child-grooming taking place via the app.

Online businesses are beginning to realise that they have the same responsibilities to prevent children from using services, accessing content or obtaining products that are age-restricted, as businesses that operate in the real world.

For too long ‘a lack of parental control’ has been used as an excuse for children gaining access to inappropriate goods online. One would have little sympathy for a merchant on the high street selling whisky or cigarettes to children on the grounds that their parents were not there to stop the transaction.

>See also: Government takes on pornography companies with age-verification demands

It can be argued that businesses still aren’t acting fast enough to rectify the situation. A recent study found some of the UK’s biggest retailers are failing to verify the age of customers online before selling them age-restricted items.

With the government cracking down on those failing to do their part, and a growing awareness amongst the public, businesses need to realise why age-verification matters and then quickly take action.

But just how easy is it, at present, for young people to access age-restricted content, products and services online?

With the rise of the internet, more and more businesses and brands are moving their operations online but yet are not introducing robust enough age-verification mechanisms. This has made it easier for young people to access products, services and content that are age-restricted.

Recent studies, such as the aforementioned, have found retailers are not doing their part to protect children from obtaining age-restricted goods online. This includes research such as that carried out by auditor Serve Legal which put 1000+ online retailers to the test in order to determine whether they were verifying the age of their customers before delivering alcohol. The findings of the study revealed that more than half (56%) of the businesses were not checking ID at the point of delivery.

The problem is that on many websites, the onus is placed on the customer to be honest in recording their date of birth but there is rarely a mechanism in place to confirm if this is actually true.

Other websites instead ask a customer to merely tick a box to confirm they are over 18. Commonsense would deem neither of these measures as adequate age verification.

It’s also important to remember that there are online businesses who do not have their own delivery service and therefore rely on a third party courier to deliver their goods.

Third-party couriers may not feel liable to verify the age of another company’s customers and therefore will not ask for proof of age upon delivery, or they may simply have processes that do not allow for any verification to take place.

Businesses failing to verify the age of their customers before allowing them access to age-restricted products, services or content are leaving themselves legally liable. And this could spell big problems – not only with the law, but for their reputation.

As is the case in a bricks and mortar store, it is the responsibility of the business to ensure their customers are the right age before allowing access to any age-restricted goods, services or content online. Robust online age-verification is imperative in order to sift out those who are underage and prevent any law-breaking.

It’s also important that businesses that already have online age-verification mechanisms in place ensure these are regularly tested and updated. This will go in some way to help make sure their age-verification measures develop in line with the continuous advancements in technology.

It can also be damaging to a business’s reputation if they fail to verify the age of customers, as Amazon found out earlier this year. When the 16-year-old convicted of fatally stabbing Aberdeen schoolboy Bailey Gwynne last year was questioned about how he had obtained a knife, he revealed he bought the offensive weapon on Amazon, without having to first prove this age.

The legal penalties for businesses that fail to do this can be harsh. Businesses that allow anyone under 18 access to age-restricted products and services could face up to two years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

So what measures can businesses take to verify customer ages online?

One measure businesses can take is to ensure every customer purchasing an age-restricted item provides their proof of age upon delivery. This is something that many businesses are still failing to do. The onus is on the business to ensure their staff or any third party courier companies strictly enforce this policy.

Websites can also verify a customer’s age online when a credit card is used as the payment method as only over-18s are able to apply for this credit facility.

This is a crude mechanism and only a partial solution as debit cards continue to be the UK’s leading payment method of choice for online purchases. If a website was to adopt this as the only accepted payment method, it could lead to a loss of business.

Asking customers to register their details via setting up an ‘account’ can also act as a means to deter under-18s. In doing this, it means that a customer will only need to verify their age once – when the account is first set up.

>See also: How to childproof a smartphone

But these measures are not without loopholes and therefore cannot guarantee that an under-18 will not slip through the net. But there are more innovative mechanisms and systems emerging to help better sift out under-aged people.

AgeChecked, for instance, is a software application that works to verify the age of customers during the online buying process. It pulls information from a range of sources and creates an age-gateway that routes users based on age.

As more and more businesses begin to realise the importance of online age-verification, there is a growing demand for more robust measures to help websites prevent under-aged people from accessing age-restricted content, services and products.

With growing pressure from both the government and the general public, now is the time for businesses to act or they could find themselves landed with a hefty fine, or even worse – a bad reputation.


Sourced from Alastair Graham, CEO, AgeChecked

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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