Kids who are barred from buying cigarettes at local stores have a new way to get ahold of tobacco, and all it takes is a click of a mouse.
For years, law enforcement officers around the nation have used teens as bait in undercover sting operations to nail retail establishments for selling cigarettes to people under 18. And the stings worked: More than 70 percent of all stores nationwide now comply with the laws and ask for identification.
But now there is a new way for kids to buy cigarettes, with no ID required, as ABCNEWS' Good Morning America has discovered.
In Salt Lake City, children ranging in age from 10 to 17 were able to buy cigarettes online and have them shipped directly to their homes.
Laura Jacobsen, who does not smoke, was one of those who ordered cigarettes over the Internet. She and the other children were working with investigators from the Utah Attorney General's Office.
It was part of a sting operation to see if online retailers would sell to minors. And they did: More than 50 percent of the children's orders were filled.
"I got Virginia Lights and I'm 14," Jacobsen said. "I just ordered them over the Internet."
No one asked her age or asked her to verify her identify, she said.
Across the nation, states and cities are running similar stings.
Eight-year-old Nikko was just one of the children who bought cigarettes online as part of a sting run by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. GMA's consumer correspondent, Greg Hunter, watched the boy order three cartons of Kool mild cigarettes. The underage purchaser said he felt worried.
"I don't want other kids to do that, unless they are supervised," Nikko said.
Delivered to Their Doorsteps
According to U.S. health statistics, 8,000 children try cigarettes every day, and 3,000 become addicted to cigarettes every day.
No one knows how many children are actually ordering cigarettes online, but teens make up the largest group of new smokers. Some officials are concerned that the Internet could become an easy source for cigarettes.
In a similar cigarette sting last July, children ordered cigarettes from 26 Internet companies, and 24 of those companies filled the orders, sending the tobacco products to children.
"Unfortunately, we had kids as young as 7 years old getting cartons of cigarettes delivered to their doorstep," said Jane Hoffman, commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.
The kids were surprised that they actually received the cigarettes. Their parents were appalled.
Joey, 13, bought cigarettes from cigoutlet.com as part of the most recent sting. The Web site clearly states you need to be 18 years old to order. But that didn't stop Joey, who wasn't asked him to prove he was 18.
Just how careless are some online cigarette sellers? In one case last July, a 7-year-old gave his true date of birth to an online tobacco company — and it sent him cigarettes anyway.
The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner says an age-verification system would prohibit minors from ordering.
"Many Internet porn sites have a prior registration where you register your credit card and prove your identity and send in a birth certificate," says Hoffman. "I think Internet tobacco retailers should be doing the same thing,"
Cigarettes, Dirt Cheap
As GMA's Hunter watched, three children who volunteered to be part of the sting placed a total of four orders: three online and one by phone.
Joey, the 13-year-old, placed a phone order to dirtcheapcigs.com, where his total order, shipping included, totaled $49.17. The phone salesperson took Joey's word he was old enough to buy cigarettes.
All that the site asked for was a confirmation on "his" credit card, and it then provided him with an order number. (Although he used a credit card belonging to a consumer affairs employee, the person at the other end of the line did not ask why he was using a woman's name.) Dirtcheapcig.com shipped the two cartons of Kools within a week.
Fenton, Mo.-based Dirtcheapcig.com was one of the companies named in a similar sting run by the Michigan Attorney General's Office. The case is pending.
Fred Teutenberg, who owns the Web site, says his company verifies every credit-card number, and since you have to be at least 18 to have a credit card, that keeps kids from buying cigarettes. He claims the only minors buying are those involved in the stings.
"I think our system works," says Teutenberg. "I think we are successfully stopping kids from buying on the Internet. I think we might have stopped this sale, except it was the contrived measures the city of New York employed."
Such Internet stings may be making companies like Teutenberg's more cautious. Of the three Internet orders Hunter witnessed, only one company shipped the cigarettes: cigoutlet.com of Richmond, Va., which sent three cartons of Kools ordered by Joey.
A cigoutlet.com representative told Good Morning America the company tries to prevent minors from ordering, but "if kids want to get cigarettes, they'll find a way."