Online Age-Verification Is No Longer Impossible. In Fact, It’s Required

Written by Frank Hayes
January 4th, 2012

If detecting a customer’s age is tricky when the customer is standing right in front of a kiosk, it’s an even bigger problem for E-Commerce—one with hard legal consequences. Just after Christmas, a California father discovered his 14-year-old son had successfully ordered a water pipe and tobacco through Amazon—both illegal for minors to buy in California.

Age verification is something mail-order vendors have struggled with for years, and mostly given up on. But E-tailers can no longer use impossibility as an excuse. A recent federal law requires age-verification for tobacco sold online—and other age-controlled items can’t be far behind.

In the California case last week, a Fresco father noticed that his son was getting a stream of packages from Amazon after the holiday. He insisted the lad open one of the boxes in his presence, which is when he discovered parts for a hookah and that along with the rest of the Middle Eastern water pipe, tobacco was also on its way. Dad notified the local media, along with the local police and D.A. (And yes, the kid has been grounded forever.)

Let’s leave aside the problem of Amazon and its third-party partners, who Amazon always claims are the actual sellers of any problem items. And let’s ignore the fact that the 14-year-old used a giftcard for the purchase; payment cards used to be a reasonably reliable indicator that the customer was an adult.

For E-Commerce sites offering anything that might be age-restricted for some customers, federal and state laws have gotten much tighter since the days when a mail-order company could just say, “We asked his age. How could we possibly know he lied?”

But as annoying as it is, technology has changed that from a rhetorical question to one that chains may have to answer in court.

For tobacco products, a year-and-a-half-old federal law dubbed the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking (PACT) Act spells out explicitly what retailers have to do when they’re selling to customers they don’t see face to face. The law’s main purpose is to make sure federal and state taxes are paid on cigarettes. But there’s also an age-verification requirement.

Here’s the main requirement: The seller “shall not accept a delivery sale order from a person without obtaining the full name, birth date and residential address of that person” and then running the information through “a commercially available database or aggregate of databases, consisting primarily of data from government sources, that are regularly used by government and businesses for the purpose of age and identity verification and authentication, to ensure that the purchaser is at least the minimum age required for the legal sale or purchase of tobacco products, as determined by the applicable law at the place of delivery.”

And it has a to use a third-party database, too.


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