Inside the box was a bottle of booze. A 19-year-old had ordered it online during the summer of 2011 and gone to the UPS package distribution center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to pick it up. “The clerk checked my ID, pointed at it right where it said, ‘WILL TURN 21 IN 2014,’ and said, ‘OK!’ Then he gave me the package.”

The youth was part of a UNC study to determine how difficult it is for minors to buy alcohol from internet vendors. The answer: not very. In fact, that 19-year old had to jump through more hoops than most.

The study participants successfully purchased alcohol on 45 out of 100 tightly controlled attempts. They did not use fake IDs, and they had to provide their real IDs when asked. Only 12 orders failed immediately when the participant placed the online order or shortly afterward. (more stats below.)

“We were amazed at how easy it was,” says Rebecca Williams, the UNC researcher who led the study. “With just a few clicks on their computers or smartphones, kids can order alcohol and have it delivered to their homes.” And if one website denies them access to alcohol, there are thousands of other sites to choose from.

In 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 225 internet vendors that primarily sold alcohol; they were responsible for $2.4 billion in annual sales. In 2009, when Williams and her team searched for alcohol vendors, they found more than 5,000. “We had to stop searching at 5,000 because of budgetary constraints,” Williams says.

Her team recruited eight participants—ages 18 to 20—to use prepaid Visa debit cards to buy alcohol from the 100 most popular sites. The participants could lie about their age. For instance, they could punch in a false age or birth date on internet order forms, and they could tell delivery personnel that they were 21. But they had to provide their real underage driver’s licenses if an ID was required to complete the sale or delivery. Here’s what Williams found regarding the online age verification process:

• 18 websites had age warnings.

• 41 vendors didn’t use any age verification method at the point of order.

• 31 vendors required that buyers check a box to verify age.

• 23 vendors claimed that buyers were legally certifying their age by merely placing an order.

• 5 vendors required a driver’s license number; all 5 orders were rejected.

• 39 vendors required a date of birth; only 3 orders were rejected.

• 12 orders total were rejected at the point of order due to age verification.

Williams says that requiring a driver’s license number or date of birth are good ways to reduce sales to underage buyers, as long as the vendors check the information against government databases. Online age-verification services can help with that, but many alcohol vendors aren’t using them. And underage buyers can find ways around those services. In previous studies of online tobacco marketing, Williams and her colleague Kurt Ribisl found that many youth have access to their parents’ IDs and have no qualms about using the IDs to bypass online age verification.

Another time to check the age of buyers is when packages are delivered. But delivery personnel often fail in their duty.

Here’s what Williams found:

• 16 packages were withheld and returned to the sender when buyers showed underage driver’s licenses to FedEx and UPS.

• 14 packages were delivered successfully even though delivery personnel examined the buyer’s underage ID or because the delivery person took the buyer’s word about being 21.

• 16 packages were left at the door.

• 11 packages were not delivered because no one was home to receive them.

• 14 packages were handed to buyers without any age verification.

Williams was surprised that so many packages made it through to underage buyers. “In North Carolina, underage IDs have three distinct visual markers,” she says. “It’s a vertical license, it has a red border around the photo, and inside the border it shows the date the person will turn 21.”

Click to read photo caption.

During the study, one participant recounted what happened when the delivery person looked at the underage ID: “He looked it over, claimed it was a new license and he didn’t know how to read it, looked at it a few seconds longer, and then had me sign for the delivery.”

Williams says that FedEx and UPS already have policies in place for checking identification. But she says they need to enforce them better and conduct internal compliance checks. “Both companies have been in touch with me since our study was published,” she says. “They’re very concerned that their staffs aren’t faithfully executing their own policies.”

All told, 45 packages of booze landed in the hands of underage buyers. Still, the underage success rate could’ve been higher, especially if the buyers hadn’t presented their underage IDs when asked. And sixty-five websites were wine-only vendors, which the study showed are less likely to sell to minors than are vendors who offer various types of alcoholic beverages.

Infographic: Booze purchased online
Infographic: click to enlarge

The infographic to the right breaks down the success rate of alcohol purchases per beverage type.

Although that lone order for hard cider was unsuccessful, another company that shipped a bottle of wine shipped a second package the next day of Original Sin Pear Cider. “There was no explanation for why they sent this,” Williams says. None of her participants ordered it. “It appeared to be free,” she says.

Williams’ numbers might be low because teenagers could be more likely to order beer and liquor than wine. And given the choice between trying to fool the grocery store or ABC store clerks and trying to buy beer or booze from an online vendor, more and more youth are turning to the internet.

“Our study didn’t look at how common it is for kids to buy alcohol online,” Williams says. “But the few studies that have been done indicate that there are already millions of teens buying alcohol online.”

Her study just shows how easy it is.

Rebecca Williams is a research associate at UNC’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Her work, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Policy Research Program, is the first peer-reviewed study of whether minors can successfully purchase alcohol online. Her study, co-authored by UNC’s Kurt Ribisl, was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.