A digital identity verification process can be used to verify the age of individuals online and add a layer of authentication to e-commerce activities. Until recently, age checks or age verification required a different kind of approach and the purchase of controlled substances or other age-restricted goods was mainly policed at the local, in-store level.
However, it appears that age verification has taken a backseat to society’s concerns when it comes to these same purchases online. We take a closer look at what this means for e-commerce platforms and the nature of the internet. Does trust matter anymore? And how can age checks ensure the right people at the right age are provided access?
Age verification, age checks and controlled substances
Given the complexity of policing products across different geographic jurisdictions, it first needs to be asked: what types of use cases require age verification today? But the answer still hasn’t changed.
The purchase of age-restricted goods such as cigarettes (specifically e-cigarettes), alcohol, prescription drugs, adult-content and now marijuana (in the US/Canada) is and has been illegal for minors for many decades (with some exceptions). The overarching intent has always been to protect youngsters from making bad decisions that can harm their still developing brains.
While it has always been possible to illegally purchase these forbidden goods as a minor, the effort of getting around the age verification process in place at the time was sometimes too much or the cost too high to even bother. However, with the advent of the internet, the online sale of these goods is now essentially a free-for-all and age checks are mostly a voluntary process.
The ease with which minors are able to purchase these goods demonstrates a real need for regulations to catch-up to the innovations permitted by the internet.
One such solution to ensure that age checks are consistent, could be to enforce the use of an identity verification solution at the point-of-sale and also at the delivery/pick-up of any age-restricted goods.
A 2012 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina recruited eight participants, ages 18 to 20, to try to buy wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages online (the legal age in the US is 21). In the study, if the online vendors asked for age verification, the participants could lie and say they were of age but if asked for their ID card upon delivery they had to comply. The participants placed orders at 100 different online retailers and most deliveries were made by the US-based FedEx or UPS. Of those orders, 45 were successfully delivered and only 28 were outright rejected due to an unsuccessful age check. At that time the study’s lead-researcher Rebecca Williams, PhD said:
“We were amazed at how easy it was for minors to buy alcohol online. Using their real ID and a prepaid Visa card, they could place an order for alcohol in just a few minutes and often have it delivered to their door in a matter of days without anyone ever trying to verify their age.”
Fast forward to 2020, this time in Australia at the University of New South Wales where a similar study was commissioned. Researchers in this study found that 69% of the 65 most popular online alcohol retailers had left alcohol unattended at an address without verifying the purchaser’s age.
As in the 2012 study, the lead researchers of this study were also shocked, saying that unchecked online purchasing was “creating new problems around minors accessing alcohol” and calling for “online standards to be just as tough as when you walk into a pub or a bottle shop.”
Age verification in the ‘good old days’
Those who are old enough to belong to the earlier half of the millennial generation might recall a time when age verification required a workaround. That usually meant a fake ID or an ID with an altered date of birth to illegally purchase alcohol or cigarettes at a store.
More often than not in those analogue times, age checks required the clerk at the liquor store to scrutinize the younger shopper’s ID, perhaps bending it ever so slightly towards the light to see if the date had been altered. They would squint their eyes and maybe even ask the card-holder for their birthday as a final step towards age authentication. These unruly minors would memorize the details of the card and practice their answers – lowering their voices if necessary to sound more “of age”. On the other side, periodic secret-shoppers would enforce the age regulation by testing the clerks and their resolve. Fines were hefty for both stores and its employees, such that most store clerks were usually on guard.
Could you imagine if age verification required the same broken process today?
That’s why online verification is so important to ensuring safe processes are already place for those under 18 years in the current online environment.
Real world testing: Why age checks matter
Today, minors can skip the rehearsal to this in-store drama and simply purchase alcohol, cigarettes and other controlled substances online without any sort of age verification required (depending on the website).
In most jurisdictions, IDs are supposed to be checked upon delivery at the door. However, this is rarely enforced as was evident from the two studies outlined above.
It is also not enforced in Germany, where our office is based and where we decided to test the process. In Germany, the purchase of certain kinds of alcohol requires the purchaser to be over 18 years of age. For our test purposes, the purchase was carried out at bevbox.de, which verified age through a simple website pop-up. This pop-up gives you two options “yes” and “abort”. In clicking “abort”, it simply asks you the same question again. By clicking “yes” and confirming that you are of age, a cookie is downloaded to your browser and you are never asked again.
A couple days later the package arrived and was simply dropped off at the front door with no further ID-verification was required. “They actually just left it in the stairwell, I was a little worried that a neighbour would have taken it” recalls the employee.
Another German based drink delivery website, urban-drinks.de, requires users to enter their date of birth for age verification purposes upon checkout. After purposefully entering an underage birthday, the website states that “you have to be at least 18 years old”. Then by simply changing the birthdate, the transaction was processed.
What about the payment?
Paying for age-restricted goods online has never been easier. Even despite the fact that most jurisdictions around the world require individuals to be at least 18 in order to open a bank account. The primary issue here is that opening a bank account requires signing a contract which can only be done by an adult.
There are, however, numerous ways around this. One option is to purchase a prepaid debit card, offered by multiple companies as well as Visa and Mastercard and sold at a wide variety of stores. Even though the terms and conditions of prepaid cards state that they are not to be purchased by anyone under 18 (does anyone read these terms and conditions anyway?) If you are unable to fool a store clerk or convince an adult to buy one for you then you are out of luck. Or are you?
The PayPal way: How young people get around age verification
With a little bit of internet savvy, which the younger generation has in spades, it is incredibly easy to open a fake PayPal account, anonymously purchase age-restricted goods from a huge array of legitimate online vendors that accept PayPal, and then have the goods shipped to your front door.
It is important to mention that what follows does not imply that we condone spoofing PayPal and illegally using its services. It is instead for demonstration purposes of how online payment systems and shopping platforms are in dire need of more control and regulations:
Most online shops accept PayPal. And while opening a PayPal account requires the account holder to be 18 or above, it is all too easy to get around this – albeit illegally according to PayPal’s terms and conditions (which few people ever read).
Opening a PayPal account doesn’t actually require any age verification outside of an email and phone number that can receive SMS texts. A free anonymous email can easily be set up from multiple websites. And if you don’t have a phone or don’t want to use your own phone number, then you can use a number from a website like receive-smss.com.
Click on the above link and select a phone number that is from your country or the country where you want to open a PayPal account. Next, open a PayPal account using the PayPal website from that same country. When PayPal asks for a phone number enter in your fake phone number and then wait for the SMS code which you will enter into the PayPal site and voila!
PayPal will limit these unverified accounts to $500 per month and even lock you out of your account if they suspect you of breaking the terms and conditions. So, the idea is to use the account for small amounts of money and only load it on when you are about to use it. You can fund your account by performing online work or selling something online and asking for payment with PayPal. With nearly 350 million PayPal users worldwide this won’t be too difficult to accomplish.
Additionally, with a little more difficulty and a higher chance of getting caught you can also fake an ID verification and use PayPal without limit. There are many tutorials on the Internet explaining this process.
For more information on the subject, take a look at our cybersecurity article for more tips on how to keep safe online.
Under age purchases: Tread with caution
The ease with which underage minors can purchase alcohol and other age-restricted goods on the internet is rather terrifying.According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US, youth who drink alcohol are more likely to experience problems at school, have other social problems, are more likely to get in trouble with the law, have physical issues, memory problems, get alcohol poisoning and the list goes on. The CDC maintains though that drinking among high school students, at least in the US, has generally been declining in recent decades. There are, however, other age-restricted goods besides alcohol that are likely to have negative consequences on the developing brain. For instance, marijuana and cigarettes and especially e-cigarettes and “weed” vaporizers.
Adding momentum to the issue is the intersection of social media influencers and the ease with which minors can procure age-restricted goods. Many online influencers revel in the “lifestyle” of smoking, drinking, vaping – having a good time! And this is all it takes for their underage followers to want to do the same.
The Orlando based Addiction Center knows this all too well. One study posted to their website which surveyed 2000 adolescents on their social media use and consumption of age-restricted goods, showed that social media users were 5 times more likely to buy cigarettes, 3 times more likely to drink and 2 times more likely to use marijuana.
The regulators had better start regulating
All of this begs the question of how did we get to this point? The glaring issue is clearly one of technological innovation outpacing regulation and yet, questions regarding age verification and age checks (and similar legislative matters) continue to be a challenge for global regulators.
A spate of recent testimonies at the US Congress involving the tech titans of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google et. al. provides sufficient evidence of this. At a hearing with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, one congressional member asked how Facebook made money since its service was free. Zuckerberg laughed and replied that it was paid for by ads!
It is of course understandable that regulators are careful not to overstep and harm the innovations of their jurisdictions – one fear being that other countries could then use the opportunity to gain an advantage. There is, however, clearly a problem when a sitting of the world’s most highly regarded regulators demonstrate a limited understanding of how the internet works.
PXL Vision’s solutions
PXL-Vision is confident that regulations on online age verification will soon come into force. This legislation would likely involve electronic scans of an individual’s ID and a biometric face-scan to ensure that the person using the card and card holder are the same person.
As in previous times, merchants selling age-restricted goods will again be required to verify the age of their customers. The full legislation would also likely involve regular checkups to ensure that the online vendor’s procedures and processes are in place.
The PXL Age Verification Solution
PXL Vision was recently approved by the Kommission für Jugendmedienschutz (KMJ) or The Commision for the Protection of Minors in the Media (About Us: in English) as one of only a handful of fully-compliant age verification solutions to protect minors and add trust to digital interactions.