Online Retailers Seek Age Verification Mechanism

Online retailers will create an age-verification tool to allow shoppers to prove their age, the UK's online retail trade body has said. The solution is likely to involve asking the payment industry for extra information.

The Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) said that it intends to bring major retailers together to help find a solution to the problem of proving customers' ages online.

"Online shopping is an international marketplace in which traditional forms of age verification do not work," said an IMRG statement. "A new age verification solution is required that is inclusive, widely available, easy and quick to use, cost efficient, provides a high degree of surety without blocking legitimate customers, and is capable of operating across national borders."

It said that any solution to the problem is likely to involve the payment industry.

"Providers of consumer payment mechanisms, such as credit and debit cards, generally capture the information necessary to verify age, but they currently do not provide retailers with any means of qualifying their age-sensitive transactions against this information," said the IMRG statement. "An obvious and inclusive solution to the problem would be for the payments industry to provide a verification service that bridges the gap."

IMRG's director of business development Andrew McClelland said that the body had no clear idea yet what a useful age verification system might be. He said that it was not possible simply to use credit cards to prove that a customer was over 18.

"Payment networks were not designed as a method of age verification and some pre-payment cards are coded as credit cards so it is difficult to judge what type of card is being used," he said.

McClelland said that to block pre-paid cards would bar certain kinds of customers from online shopping, which would not be acceptable.

"If we were to stop prepaid cards being used there are two million non banked people in the UK and the Government has a digital inclusion strategy. If we block them then they will have no access to a method of payment for online shopping," he said.

The IMRG has set up a working party to look into the problem, and it will seek input from major retailers to establish finding an answer as a 'non-competitive' issue that the whole online retail industry can move together on. It will aim to find a way for customers to prove their age at all regulated levels, including 5, 12, 15, 16 and 18 years.

The online betting industry is able to prove gamblers' ages, but McClelland said that the methods used by those companies would be unlikely to be suitable for general retail. For one, he said, verification takes too long.

"Gambling sites use a range of ID and information organisations which check things like the drivers' licence database and the passport database but this can take longer than is appropriate in a retail setting," he said.

The working party will first seek to gather retailers together to begin to find a solution.

"The end aim is to assess what is possible and what is not possible and determine a way to enable people to buy products online in a system that doesn't discriminate against certain groups and encourages people to continue shopping online," said McClelland. "At this stage it is about getting the retailers together to talk and work out if there are solutions available on an industry wide basis."