Press releases

Stop underage sales online – traders warned

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.

And the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) warned parents to keep a close eye on what their children may try to buy online this Christmas.

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'.

'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.'

Mr Gainsford added: 'Online traders must realise that they are covered by the same laws on age-restricted goods as other retailers and, even though they cannot see their customers, they must introduce robust procedures to check ages.

'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.'

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. 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.'

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.

Ealing trading standards service is continuing to investigate the underage sales made.

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. One of the traders that sold spray paint - a national retailer - has since decided to cease the sale of these items over the internet. 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.'

James Roper, chief executive of the e-retail industry body IMRG (Interactive Media in Retail Group), said: 'IMRG and the e-retail industry work hard to secure socially responsible retailing and we fully recognise that protecting minors by properly controlling online sales of age-restricted goods needs to be balanced by ensuring free access to an open marketplace for all.

'New technology and political will are making earlier methods of age compliance obsolete, so IMRG encourages enforcement agencies to take a common sense approach to this issue and engage positively with us to evolve the online marketplace into the safest place to trade, which it will ultimately become.'

Notes to editors

The law on age-restricted goods:

Alcohol cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £5,000 fine and forfeiture of licence to sell alcohol.

Films, video and computer games should be sold only to people from the age specified in their certification (eg 12 and over; 15 and over; 18 and over). The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £5,000 fine and up to six months imprisonment. Supply of an unclassified DVD (as was the case in one of the purchases made by the Staffordshire teenager) carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment and/or unlimited fine in the crown court or six months imprisonment and a £20,000 fine in a magistrates court.

Knives, crossbows and offensive weapons cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £5,000 fine and up to six months imprisonment. In Scotland the age limit is still 16 years for domestic knives and for all others 18 years.

Fireworks and sparklers cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £5,000 fine and up to six months imprisonment.

Caps, cracker snaps, novelty matches, party poppers, serpents and throwdowns cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 16. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £5,000 fine and up to six months imprisonment.

Tobacco cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £2,500 fine.

Butane lighter refills cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £5,000 fine and up to six months imprisonment.

Aerosol paint cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 16. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £2,500 fine.

Lottery tickets/instant win cards cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 16. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £5,000 fine and up to two years imprisonment.

Solvents and volatile substances cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is a £5,000 fine and up to six months prison.

National Consumer Week

This is the 21st annual National Consumer Week organised by the Trading Standards Institute and for the fourth year in association with Consumer Direct, the government-funded consumer advice telephone and online service.

National Consumer Week is a platform to raise awareness about specific consumer issues and particularly to highlight new developments in an increasingly complex and competitive marketplace. It profiles the work of and is supported by local authority trading standards services across the UK.

Trading Standards Institute

The Trading Standards Institute has represented the interests of Trading Standards professionals for 120 years. We have a long and proud history of ensuring that the views of our members are well represented at the highest level of government, both nationally and internationally.

Our aim is to promote excellence and enhance the professionalism of our members in support of empowering and informing consumers, encouraging and working with honest businesses, targeting rogue traders and rogue trading practices and contributing to the health, welfare and wellbeing of citizens and communities.

TSI members are engaged in delivering frontline trading standards services in local authorities in response to 2 million consumer and business complaints and enquiries each year. They also support the delivery of new initiatives such as Consumer Direct, providing first point of contact practical consumer advice.

They also work in the business, consumer and central government sectors in promoting and influencing the safety, prosperity and enhancement of individuals and markets with a dependency on effective and professional trading standards contributions and interventions.

Consumer Direct - 08454 04 05 06

Consumer Direct is a Government-funded telephone and online consumer advice service which works in partnership with Local Authority Trading Standards. It provides clear, practical and impartial advice and information to help consumers resolve problems and disagreements with suppliers of goods and services.

Consumer Direct is available from 8am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday, and 9am to 1pm Saturday (excluding bank and public holidays).

Calls cost a maximum of 4 pence per minute from a BT landline. Charges from other networks or mobiles may vary. Your service provider may charge a minimum cost per call. The advice and information given is free.

Useful information is also available on the website www.consumerdirect.gov.uk