Effective age-gating for online alcohol sales

9 June 2020


Jessica Muirhead and Vic Grout, Wrexham Glyndŵr University

Executive summary

In principle, the sale of alcohol to under 18s online is prohibited by law. However, the implementation of measures to prevent such purchases varies widely amongst different retailers. Many companies push the necessary age verification checks to the end of the buying process, requiring delivery drivers to manually check identification and refuse sales as appropriate. This interpretation of the law is often followed by retailers, and has been unchallenged despite its lack of legal certainty.

Current methods of age verification are largely ineffectual. When implemented online, they often involve simple ‘honour’ checks, which are easily deceived, or alternative forms of ‘authentication’ that can be bypassed in various ways. Implemented offline, by delivery drivers, etc., they are known to be ineffective in practice. A particular difficulty arises when alcohol is part of a larger online shopping cart, which can often make it ‘invisible’.

Introducing technical measures to prevent the sale of alcohol to under 18s would help increase the safeguarding of minors, reducing the possibility of obtaining alcohol online and bypassing existing checks. Despite several emerging technologies and promising developments in other domains such as online gambling and pornography, the simplest and most effective measure could be to extend the use of Merchant Category Codes (MCC codes) to repurpose banks’ existing identity and age verification checks.

This report makes the following specific recommendations (in regard to the online purchase of alcohol by under 18s):

  1. The law must be clarified
  2. No confidence should be placed in existing safeguards
  3. Items within online ‘shopping baskets’ should be considered individually
  4. The use of MCC codes and bank authorisation processes should be extended
  5. Relevant emerging technology should be continuously monitored