Trading standards services are getting tough on internet traders who flout the law by selling items like adult films, violent DVD games and knives to under 18s – after recent surveys showed many are failing to check the age of customers.
“It is alarming that so many online traders seem ready to sell age-restricted goods that could be harmful to young people without carrying out any real check,” said Ron Gainsford, chief executive of TSI.
“Traders should always make it clear on their websites if there is an age restriction on any of the products on offer. As they cannot see their customers, they should carry out an age check in each and every case. There are agencies that will carry this out for them for a small fee per check – with the electoral register being a prime source for the information.
“If there is any doubt that a person is old enough the sale must not be made.”
During November, the trading standards service for the London Borough of Brent and Harrow successfully prosecuted two website traders for selling knives to a 13-year-old girl without asking for her age – and more court cases are in the pipeline.
And, during October and November, surveys by two other trading standards services – in Staffordshire and the London Borough of Ealing – found that 15 out of 16 sites tested sold age-restricted goods to youngsters.
The results were revealed during TSI’s National Consumer Week, launched at the Office of Fair Trading in London on Monday 17 November, for which the theme is ‘be a savvy shopper this Christmas’.
“As Brent and Harrow trading standards have shown, they can face prosecution if they continue to ignore the law and supply age-restricted goods to people who are too young.”
Debit Card Under-age purchases
Using his own debit card but working under the supervision of a trading standards officer, Alex, a 14-year-old Staffordshire boy, managed to buy goods for which he was too young from all 11 websites tested during November 2008. The items included an uncertified pornographic film, ‘18’ and ‘15’ certificate films, three ‘18’ certificate violent DVD games and five knives, which should not be sold to people aged under 18.
Two sites asked for a date of birth – but they did not make any check if a false date was given. On one of these sites, Alex entered his real date of birth first and then went back to falsify it – and the company progressed the transaction. Alex’s full name is not being disclosed so that he can continue to help his local trading standards service to test online traders for the sale of age-restricted goods.
The service is now writing to all of the retailers involved in the test purchasing exercise to advise them that they have broken the law. The offences are to be further investigated.
Alex said of his online shopping spree: “I can’t believe it was so easy. If I went into a shop I would have been asked my age or to provide ID.”
Under-age Prepaid Card purchases
In the London Borough of Ealing, during October, a 16-year-old year old boy, supervised by local trading standards professionals, managed to buy two Certificate 18 DVD films and two kitchen knives, using either a debit card or prepayment card for the transactions. However, an attempt to buy an age-restricted DVD game was unsuccessful.
Two of the websites involved did not ask for any age details and another just asked the purchaser to confirm their age range. One stipulated that purchasers must be over 18 and another asked for the date of birth.
In March, the London Borough of Brent and Harrow trading standards organised a test purchasing exercise with the help of a 13-year-old girl, using a prepayment card.
She managed to buy a bottle of Bacardi, a bottle of whisky, four knives – including a machete and a jungle knife – and spray paints. However, two attempts to buy fireworks failed. Out of 12 attempts to purchase age restricted goods, a total of eight sales were made to the girl.
Following the exercise, a trader from Norwich, pleaded guilty at Harrow Magistrates Court to supplying a machete to a person aged under 18. Earlier this month (November), the trader was given a two-year conditional discharge and ordered to pay £475.50 costs.
At Brent Magistrates Court, also this month, a company from Bolton was fined £1,500 and ordered to pay £400 costs after admitting selling a kitchen knife to the 13-year-old. The firm was also fined a further £500 after admitting not giving its correct business name details on stationery.
Two more prosecutions are to follow over the sale of knives and the two companies that sold spray paints have been cautioned by trading standards. Investigations continue in the cases of the two sales of alcohol.
Brandon Cook, TSI lead officer for age-restricted sales, said: “Online gambling sites have got their act together and employ agencies that carry out checks on the age of customers before agreeing to take their money.
“All online retailers should introduce a proper age-checking procedure. It is disturbing to know that, in our survey, Alex managed to buy DVD games and films which were unsuitable for someone his age, as well as knives.
“We would also like to alert parents to the need to supervise their children’s purchases on the internet and make sure they are not getting access to goods that could be totally unsuitable for their age.”