On 08 December 2021 we launched a new IAS-funded report by Jessica Muihead, Wrexham Glyndŵr University, which makes a proposal for a new way to prevent underage people from buying age-restricted products. You can catch up on the launch webinar here.

The following is taken from Jessica’s Executive Summary:

Age assurance online needs improving

With the increasing reliance on digital services for purchasing physical goods, there is a growing need to uphold the legislative requirements for age assurance online, in addition to a responsibility on businesses to only provide products to those who are of an appropriate age. Many existing age verification and assurance solutions focus on either unverifiable data (such as honesty policies, uploaded documents, and artificial intelligence) or data verified using authoritative databases causing the leakage of data about a purchaser’s habits.

Use of ‘Merchant Category Codes’ could be expanded for more age-restricted products

Every time a payment is made using a debit or credit card, a Merchant Category Code (MCC code) is transmitted along with the payment details to identify the type of transaction. This is already used to enforce UK legislation such as banning under-18s from online gambling payments and could be expanded to provide a general-purpose protection when selling age restricted products, such as alcohol. The use of MCC codes would require a small change to payment authentication processes at banking institutions, along with a progressive adjustment to e-commerce sofware to pass the required data with the required levels of privacy protection. This report outlines the context and solutions that could be developed to implement this additional check, helping retailers to maintain regulatory standards when selling age restricted products both online and offline.

Recommendations for banks and online retailers

Implementing MCC code-based age assurance mechanisms would allow the staged roll-out of an additional technique providing a baseline standard for protecting those under-age from making inappropriate age restricted purchases. Such mechanisms could be used in combination with other active techniques to provide a high level of age certainty for retailers.