Page last updated at 06:15 GMT, Saturday, 9 May 2009 07:15 UK

Sites fail age verification check

Knives, BBC
Checks on who is buying a knife need to be more rigorous, say campaigners

Children's charities are backing a plan to make web retailers ensure young people cannot buy age-restricted goods.

A private members bill going through the House of Lords is calling for it to be mandatory for web retailers to adopt age verification systems.

The bill on age-checking has the backing of charities who say it is too easy for children to buy alcohol, knives and violent video games online.

A check on twelve sites found that thorough checks were not being done.

No tests

The Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification) Bill has been proposed by Baroness Massey and calls for "robust" checking systems to be used by any site selling age-restricted goods.

These systems should go further than just making customers tick a box, it said.

The age-checking systems would have to be used if one of 20 separate products were sold including knives, alcohol, tobacco, age-restricted video games and DVDs, solvents and spray paints.

Trading standards officers from Greenwich Council carried out tests on a number of websites to check their age verification processes.

In a supervised test, a 16-year-old bought pre-paid credit cards and then went online to see if he could buy age-restricted goods with it. The credit card was registered with the minor's real date of birth and address.

The teenager managed to buy knives, drink, and 18-rated DVDs and games from 12 separate online retailers.

Oddbins, one of the sites visited, said it was aware of the tests and that it welcomed the second reading of Baroness Massey's bill.

"We do take this matter seriously and are investigating procedures that may assist us in ensuring that sales of alcohol are to over 18s only," added a spokesperson.

Debenhams, which sold knives to the teenager, said it had a "very clear policy" on the issue of selling knives online.

"Customers who visit Debenhams' website pages where knives are for sale are made aware that these are age-restricted products and should therefore only purchase them if they are over 18," it said in a statement.

"Debenhams would never knowingly sell knives to anyone under the age of 18 years old," it added.

Only three of the retailers asked for the teenager to confirm his age at the time of purchase. He got round these by lying about his age. The other sites simply said that buying the goods was a declaration that he was the right age to buy them.

Beer drinking, PA
Few sites asked buyers to prove their age, found a study

"Although a small sample, our findings from this operation seem to show the danger to which young people can be exposed on the internet," said councillor Maureen O'Mara, Greenwich Council's cabinet member for neighbourhood services, in a statement.

Greenwich Council has written to all the web firms involved in the test.

"Retailers' increasingly successful efforts to control the sale of age restricted products over the counter on the High Street are being seriously undermined by their failure to take similarly effective steps to limit sales of exactly the same items on the internet," said Zoe Hilton, a policy advisor for the NSPCC speaking on behalf of the Children's Charities Coalition on Internet Safety.

The Coalition, which includes Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau and Action for Children, said a precedent on age-verification systems had already been set with gambling sites.

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