It’s every ecommerce store’s responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t sell age-restricted products to minors.
The concept of online age verification may seem simple, but too many online stores don’t have suitable systems in place to protect young consumers and themselves.
If you sell age-restricted items, it’s crucial to have the steps in place to accurately verify buyers’ age according to the law’s requirements and expectations.
Having such steps and systems in place will help you avoid an offense and help defend you if one is made.
Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and cannot protect you from lawyers lawyering. What we can do is offer standards and suggestions through informative articles like this one.
Why Age Verification Matters for Ecommerce
If your ecommerce store sells age-restricted products, you have to verify your customers’ ages in order to:
- Meet strict federal and state regulations
- Guard your reputation
- Protect industry and community standards
- Prevent excess restrictions on your industry
However, you also don’t want to frustrate users and turn away legitimate customers.
Thus, many businesses make the mistake of doing too little, and it’s not enough to even marginally slow down young consumers.
The right balance of due diligence and customer experience requires an effective and smooth online age verification process for restricted sales.
Age-Restriction Fails: a Case Study In Alcohol Delivery
Online alcohol sales are booming and estimated to grow into a $45.5 billion market by 2024.
It’s also an industry thriving with poor age verification strategies and underage drinkers.
According to a study at the University of North Carolina (UNC), 45 out of 100 underage attempts to purchase alcohol online were successful. The underage participants could lie about their age and date of birth, but they had to comply if asked to show their ID.
The study revealed many errors in online sellers’ typical age verification processes and highlighted a likely solution. Results showed that:
- Of 39 vendors that required a date of birth, only 3 rejected orders.
- Of the 5 vendors that required a driver’s license number, all 5 rejected orders.
Fast forward to a post-pandemic era where alcohol delivery and takeout are more common than ever. On-demand food delivery apps make it increasingly easy for underage individuals to order alcohol online and get it dropped off at their door.
In turn, California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) began conducting numerous delivery driver stings to catch drivers and businesses delivering to minors without taking the proper precaution.
The prominence of underage drinking through online services is an excellent case study on the necessity of stronger online age verification for websites.
What Products Are Age-Restricted in the US?
Of course, alcohol isn’t the only age-restricted product. Other common ones include:
- Alcohol: 21+
- Aerosol paint: 18+
- Fireworks: varies by state, with ages 12, 16, and 18 being the most common
- R-rated Movies: 17+
- M-rated video games: 17+
- Cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vape: 21+
- Certain shaving razors: 18+
- Guns: 18-21+ depending on the type of gun
- Knives and crossbows: varies by state
- Lottery tickets: 18+
- Dating apps (a digital service): varies, but 17+ is common
Note: Some popular ecommerce services, like Shopify and Amazon, prohibit the selling of certain products altogether. If you sell on a website like Amazon or use a website-builder, be sure to review their policies on restricted products thoroughly.
Who’s Responsible for Making Sure Customers Are Old Enough to Buy Age-Restricted Products?
It’s the retailer’s responsibility to make sure customers are old enough to buy their products, whether they sell in-person or online. Third parties, like delivery services, are usually not responsible and can’t be blamed. This is why retailers need secure age verification systems in place.
What Happens if You Sell Products to Someone Underage?
If you sell age-restricted products to someone under the legal age, you and your business may be subject to fines, lawsuits, prison time and loss of license. Using age verification that meets legal requirements can help protect you if a product gets into the wrong hands.
Common Tactics That Won’t Meet Your Legal Requirement
Ecommerce stores use a variety of tactics to verify the age of website visitors and customers. The problem is that many of these tactics, chosen for their simplicity, do not work and won’t meet your legal requirement.
Tactics that don’t work include:
- Asking the purchaser their age.
- Asking the purchaser to confirm that they are of age.
- Asking the purchaser to provide their date of birth.
- Adding a disclaimer that customers have to be [age] or that they certify that they are [age] by purchasing.
- Having users indicate that they “accept” the terms and conditions and are of age.
- Only taking credit cards as payment. (Certain debit and prepaid cards are available to underage individuals, and a payment system may not be able to tell the difference).
Age Gates Are No Longer Enough
You may recognize the first tactics above as types of age gates. An age gate is an age verification pop-up that requires visitors to confirm their age in some manner before allowing them onto the site.
Age gates don’t work.
Most of the time, the information provided in an age gate isn’t verified or checked in any way. This means all someone has to do to sneak by is tell a lie that takes mere seconds of their time.
Thus, age gate pop-ups aren’t enough to meet compliance. If anything, they are more about sending a message than preventing restricted sales.
So, how does age verification work online when done right?
Online retailers of nicotine and alcohol products are legally required to use verification methods that check ID or match the buyer’s name, address and date of birth to data records.
In recent years, the FDA has become more strict and has explicitly said that they will prioritize enforcement for retailers “without independent, third-party, age- and identity-verification services that compare customer information against third-party data sources, such as public records.”
First-Purchase Screening Isn’t Sufficient
If you’re really trying to prevent underage access, first-purchase screening isn’t sufficient on its own either.
By first-purchase screening, we mean verifying age during a customer’s first purchase on your website and never verifying them again.
Nowadays, some websites verify purchasers’ details when they set up their account, so they don’t have to verify for future purchases under that account. The problem with this practice is that others, including children, can borrow the account or use the same computer.
How Online Sellers Can Verify Age Legally
Online sellers verify age through a variety of methods, the most effective of which is online age verification software. Other methods include in-store pickups and relying on delivery personnel, though depending on delivery workers can be ineffective.
With Online Age Verification Software
If you’re wondering how to verify someone’s age online, the easiest and most effective way is with trustworthy online age verification software.
Typically, age verification software works by asking a buyer for their personally identifiable information (PII)—like name, address and birthday—and comparing it to databases like the electoral register or credit agency records. Unlike age gates, these systems confirm the buyer’s identity and age.
Some newer age verification software asks buyers for a photo of their ID and a selfie, using biometrics and facial matching to verify their identity and age.
When choosing an age verification system, look for one that:
- Complies with regulations.
- Takes data security seriously.
- Can verify users for specific products, so you don’t deter all young users if you also sell non-restricted products.
- Can customize minimum ages if you sell different restricted products.
- Offers a good user experience.
AgeChecker.Net is an example of a safe, reliable and FDA-compliant online age verification system that works with almost any ecommerce website.
The system automatically confirms user age when they fill out your checkout form and provides various customization options, including the ability to label products “restricted” and “non-restricted” and to update requirements to match customers’ location.
If they can’t verify a customer through their personal information, AgeChecker.net gives them the option to upload their ID. (You can customize your verification process to always require an ID if you prefer the extra measure).
AgeChecker.Net also takes precautions to improve user experience. For example, they autofill consumer information whenever they can, and customers on a computer have the option to upload ID photos through a link sent to their phone for a smoother process.
Passbase is another example of an authentication system available to ecommerce sites. GDPR and CCPA compliant, Passbase offers support in over 15 languages and stays up to date with the legal landscape.
What differentiates Passbase from AgeChecker.Net is that it uses selfies to verify that the person buying owns the ID they are using.
Passbase also offers authentication for returning visitors, solving the first-purchase screening issue discussed above. Instead of using a password to log in, visitors take a quick selfie, and the system verifies that the person is the account owner.
Another fun feature for brands is the ability to customize color, text and language options.
Note: Even if your ecommerce store uses a secure age verification system, it’s still wise to include an age-restriction notice for buyers so that they aren’t surprised at checkout.
With In-Store Pickups
An option for online retailers with a high presence of physical locations is to have purchasers pick up their online orders in store, so staff can check their ID in person.
With this method, it’s important to train employees to properly verify someone’s age while maintaining good customer service. Nowadays, many stores use verification software that employees type ID birthdates into. You will also want to emphasize employees’ liability.
Note: The problem with this method is that many people buy online to avoid going to the store, and in-store pickup defeats this purpose. Still, it can help if you offer a product online that you don’t typically have in store. COVID-19 has also normalized the use of curbside pickup.
With Trained Delivery Personnel
Some ecommerce and delivery services rely on the workers who deliver the package to confirm the receiver’s identity and age.
We don’t recommend relying solely on this method because third parties may not accept responsibility, and it’s difficult to guarantee this process. Delivery personnel may leave the package at the door, not check ID or not check it properly.
A possible solution is to use software that requires delivery personnel to confirm identity and helps them do so accurately. BlinkID is one service that scans IDs for workers to help verify identity and age.
Note: Although relying only on delivery personnel isn’t the safest method, it can make a great addition to your verification process by ensuring the receiver is the person who bought the product. We also recommend that you avoid using ecommerce lockers for age-restricted products as minors can find a way to access them.
How to Add Age Verification to Your Website
Use the following steps to implement secure age verification on your website.
1. Establish Internal Processes
- Check your state and local laws in addition to federal regulations.
- Confirm your ecommerce platform’s guidelines if you use one.
- Note each of your products that are age-restricted and what the age minimums and restrictions are on each.
- Decide whether you will use an age verification system, in-store pickups, delivery personnel verification or a combination of the above (recommended).
- Decide on the specific software and services you will use for the above.
Working with a lawyer can help you complete these steps quickly and accurately.
2. Adjust Your Website
- Work with your web developers to add the age verification software of choice to your website.
- Add language on your website that alerts visitors to age-restricted products. You can do this through pop-ups or product descriptions.
3. Train Relevant Staff
- Train all customer-facing employees that handle orders and returns in your age-verification policies and processes.
- Train all employees at physical locations if applicable.
4. Conduct Risk Assessments
- Decide on a frequency for conducting risk assessments.
- Conduct risk assessments: look for weaknesses in your age verification process and opportunities to bypass it.
- Update processes to counter any weaknesses found in your assessment.
- Keep up with new verification technology and requirements, or hire someone who can for you.
Advertising Age-Restricted Products
When advertising your age-restricted products online, be sure to learn and comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s advertising and marketing regulations. There are three components to keep in mind:
- Messaging: Ensure ad messaging is entirely true, non-deceptive and includes any disclosures necessary.
- Placement: Select ad placements that limit the likelihood of impressions by underage consumers.
- Targeting: Add age filters to digital ads to only target people over the legal age for a product.
Protect Your Online Business: Verify Your Customers’ Age
Age verification online exists to protect you and your business from legal penalties—not to limit your sales. But you have to make it work for you.
As we mentioned from the start, we are not lawyers, cannot replace the role of a lawyer, and do not know your specific business, circumstances and products.
We can help you create a compliant website with verification properties and a fantastic user experience when you’re ready.