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GUEST COMMENT Age verification of online alcohol purchases

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by Ben Allott

Walk around any supermarket in the UK and the chances are you’ll see signs warning underage buyers against attempting to buy alcohol. Selling alcohol to minors is an offence punishable by a fine of up to £20,000, as well as causing significant reputational damage to the seller. Retailers have responded by introducing strict ID checks at the checkout, with ‘Think 21’ or ‘Think 25’ policies becoming increasingly common.

But in an era where many transactions are increasingly being carried out over the internet, how do these strict ID checks translate into the world of online retailing? After all, the law applies just as much in an online environment as it does offline, but the challenge for online traders is arguably greater when their customers can hide behind the relative anonymity that the internet offers.

Indeed, despite the considerable growth of age-checking in offline retail environments, which has contributed to a notable decline in alcohol consumption by young people in the UK, it is becoming increasingly apparent that online alcohol sales are a potential area of vulnerability for the retail sector. A recent report by Plymouth University and underage sales auditors Serve Legal confirms this; the authors described online sales as being a ‘significant’ problem in the battle against underage drinking, with illegal purchases being difficult to police.

The report also identifies online sales as a growth area. Although it does not give a figure for the amount of alcohol purchased by underage drinkers online, it highlights the fact that online alcohol sales in general have increased by 25% year-on-year. Many of these purchasers are likely to be adults, but the possibility that underage drinkers are using online services as a means of obtaining alcohol cannot be ruled out.

A further weakness is found in marketing, particularly in an online environment where there are few controls in place to prevent underage drinkers from seeing, and being influenced by, campaigns promoting alcohol. TV marketing has stricter regulations in place, but it still remains a cause for concern. Indeed, an alliance of 30 medical bodies and charities recently called for a complete ban on TV adverts for alcohol in the UK to help tackle the problem of underage drinking.

Of course, most major retailers do have some safeguards in place to ensure they meet their legal responsibilities when selling and promoting alcohol online. Typically, these involve drivers checking identification at the point of delivery and making a decision to withhold the order if they suspect the purchaser is under the age of 18. But many smaller retailers appear to have no such policies in place, beyond highlighting the legal drinking age on their websites.

Clearly, this is not enough and more needs to be done at the point of purchase by all retailers to ensure that underage alcohol purchases are identified at the earliest possible stage. A new mandatory licensing condition is shortly expected to require robust age verification for online and mail order sales of alcohol, alongside the Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification) Bill currently being considered in relation to other products and services, making it vital that retailers act now.

Identify and age verification products provide a solution. Online retailers can verify a customer’s personal details via a wide range of independent data sources, including the Electoral Roll, driving licence records, passport information and financial data. Once a customer has registered on the retailer’s site, their details are automatically checked against these databases and an instant decision is returned. In addition, the system can check the bank account and card details of the customer once they are provided during the transaction, giving additional confidence in confirming age and preventing fraud.

These solutions can be applied across a range of sectors, in addition to alcohol retailing – for example, in online gambling, tobacco, and age-restricted entertainment services. They are easy to incorporate into existing systems and, perhaps more importantly, checks can be carried out in real time – allowing genuine, above-age customers to continue to enjoy a smooth shopping experience, while ensuring online retailers meet their legal obligations.

Ben Allott is business development manager at Callcredit Information Group.

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