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By Alastair Graham, CEO of AgeChecked

It has become commonplace for people to buy goods and services without ever having any face-to-face interactions with the seller. This offers greater efficiency and convenience; benefits we take for granted in our digital age. However, it also poses a problem when it comes to children and online businesses who provide age-restricted goods and services.

While it would seem logical to simply require full identity verification for all customers, this can be a laborious and (for the retailer) expensive process. It is also at odds with the smooth and seamless user experience that the best online businesses work hard to create.

As a result, to date, age verification has taken a back seat. It is shockingly easy for under-18s to buy items like e-cigarettes, alcohol or download 18-certificate rated films or games.

However, the authorities are now looking to crack down on the situation and significant penalties can be levied against businesses that are seen to have been negligent in their duty of care.

Fortunately, technology is catching up. Up until recently it has been difficult for online businesses to verify personal information relating to a child or young person under 18 with reliable datasets. However, with the software that is now available, there are simple and effective ways that online businesses can protect both themselves and their customers.

The recently published Digital Economy Bill 2016 outlines plans for a regulator of sites distributing online pornography. It will publish age verification guidelines for websites on how they should ensure that their users are aged 18 or over.

The Bill states that if a site operator fails to comply with these age check measures then the regulator can notify their payment providers, which would have the effect of cutting off revenue.

Protecting children against graphic adult material is the start of wide spread online age verification. Parents’ concerns extend far beyond adult content sites and it won’t be long until the same principals are applied across a range of online businesses.

Although this new framework for age verification is a welcome move from the government with regards to child protection, concerns have been raised around an individual’s rights to privacy. It is clear that to achieve widespread support for the new measures, the age checking systems that are adopted must inherently protect the anonymity of the user.

What age verification measures have businesses put in place?

Currently, many sites have age checking ‘procedures’ that can be easily circumvented. For instance, some sites ask users to enter their date of birth or tick a box to confirm that they are aged 18 or over, but neither process verifies the information so they don’t work as effective deterrents.

Research from the auditor Serve Legal found that over half (56%) of the online retailers that deliver alcohol to people’s homes didn’t check their ID upon delivery, despite government guidance stipulating that delivery drivers ask customers to see their photo ID showing their proof of age before a physical delivery is made.

A recent legal Q&A also advised that an age verification tool should be used by alcohol delivery companies due to the risk of them breaching licensing laws and the protection of children from harm.

This clearly emphasises that it is the responsibility of the online retailer to ensure that appropriate checks are in place to guarantee age-restricted goods are not purchased by those who are underage.

A study which looked at the ease of purchasing e-cigarettes online found that more than half (56%) of retailers did not have mechanisms in place to prevent an illegal purchase, and therefore the age-restricted goods were delivered successfully.

Just over half of the retailers required an account be set up in order to complete the sale, eight of which asked for the customer’s date of birth as part of the verification process, which could be falsified. Whereas, 14 of the retailers did not have any warning signs on their site stating that e-cigarettes are illegal for under-18s.

Online retailers and service providers clearly need to sharpen up their procedures to protect themselves both legally and in terms of their reputation.

How can age verification technology make a difference?

It is not in a retailers’ interests, nor the general public’s, for children to have access to age-restricted goods online. Age verification software provides retailers with a protective layer to their website which quickly and effectively confirms a person’s date of birth. Such systems need to become the norm rather than the exception on the sale of restricted items such as e-cigarettes.

Age checks also go some way in alleviating concerns for parents, who can’t practically supervise all of their children’s online activity. And ethically, surely it’s in a business’s best interest to support parents in protecting their children rather than hindering their efforts.

The legal implications shouldn’t be taken lightly. Businesses that sell or grant underage access to age-restricted services or products can face an unlimited fine or two year’s imprisonment.

To meet this need systems, such as, are emerging to help to deal with the problem of finding the right balance of safety, convenience and cost.

Age verification software works by verifying customers through a number of methods, such as a driving licence, social media, payment card, address search or mobile network search.

The more ways customers are able to verify themselves, the easier it is for legitimate customers to quickly pass the checks, which means better customer experience, minimum disruption and drop-out.

Adoption of an age checking systems on a site, does not mean online businesses  have to hold a customer’s personal data. Systems can provide the age checking service without exposing the website owner to data protection issues. In an age concerned about the security of personal data and organised data hacks, this is obviously a route worth consideration.

Now is the time to begin investigating options for age verification. Tighter regulation is coming, but the immediate risks to reputation and image are reason enough in themselves to protect businesses and their customers.

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