The ability of children to buy age-restricted goods online creates ethical as well as legal issues

Alcohol, tobacco and knives are among the age-restricted goods finding their way into the hands of minors in the UK because of weak enforcement by online retailers and delivery companies. A new study by the independent auditor Serve Legal finds that more than half (56%) of retailers fail to undertake adequate age checks. The finding is based on the identification checks asked of young-looking ‘mystery’ shoppers. Serve Legal conducts about 100,000 such test visits every year.

By law, delivery companies should ask for ID on the doorstep when delivering age-restricted products to young-looking people. Although IMRG, a representative body for online retail in the UK, acknowledges that the problem exists, a spokesman says it’s “not top of the pack” of issues at present.

In the absence of an industry-wide strategy, the onus lies on individual companies in the e-retail and home delivery to put age-check processes in place. Large companies tend to have the more robust systems. The logistics multinational DHL, for example, requires all its delivery staff to check the ID of the recipient as a condition of delivery. As part of its service, senders can specify that a package requires proof of age as a condition of receipt.

But this still leaves the primary responsibility with the retailers. “It’s not even clear [delivery companies] know what is in the package,” says Michael Weedon, deputy chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association. “The [home delivery] market is likely to get even bigger if, as reported, Uber gets into the market for delivering products as well as people.”

Unlike in physical retail, where the vendor is in a position to request ID in person in order to confirm a customer’s age, online retailers often pass that requirement to the consumer directly. For example, a minor placing a purchase for an age-restricted product on Amazon, the largest online retailer in the world, receives the following message: “By placing an order for one of these items you are declaring that you are 18 years of age or over.”

Under UK law, retailers are required to show “all reasonable precautions” have been taken to avoid selling age-restricted products online to minors. There is no definitive answer to what these constitute, and simply asking the purchaser to provide a date of birth, using tick-boxes for consumers to confirm they are over the minimum age or using a general disclaimer may well not suffice under consumer protection legislation. 

According to UK government advice on trading standards law, one of the key due diligence measures that responsible retailers should consider is requiring payment by credit card, which are generally only available to those over 18. This is preferable to e-payment services such as PayPal or Worldpay, which require users to be over 18 but may not be as rigorous in verifying a customer’s age.

The use of online age verification software is another example of good practice. Such software draws on various data sources, such as the electoral register or credit reference agencies, to confirm a consumer’s age during the ordering process. If such data cannot be accessed, then retailers may require customers to provide a valid proof of age offline or request them to pick up the purchase in store.

Online age verification software is good practice

Ed Heaver, director of Serve Legal, insists that clamping down on underage online purchases is as much an issue of corporate ethics as it is legal compliance. “All businesses that state they are responsible retailers need to have age-test programmes, not only from a legal compliance standpoint but also to demonstrate they really do care about the wider society within which they operate,” he says.

EthicsWatch  online retailers  Amazon  UK  legal compliance 

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