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EDITIONS
E-conomy Friday, 5 March, 1999, 18:00 GMT
Is e-shopping safe?
computer under lock and key
Convenient but is it safe?
Half of Britain fears fraud on the Internet according to a recent Mori poll.

This bald statement is just one example which proves that trust is an essential part of e-commerce, but it is also a quality which the Net is finding hard to come by.

E-conomy - Code of Conduct
Christmas is always an important time for Net merchants, as they hope the Web's ease of access will give them the edge over shops packed with present-hunters. Figures filtering in from Christmas '98 suggest that consumers are finally overcoming their phobias about buying over the Internet.

Trust - difficult to win, easy to lose

Predictably, US users are out in front. America Online subscribers spent about $1.2bn shopping online in the month from Thanksgiving to December 27, according to the company.

Another study of the buying habits of more than a thousand Net users suggested online spending had increased nearly 200% on the previous Christmas.

But in the UK, the picture is less clear. Confidence is growing, but is still at a very low level.

It is clear the key issue for Net commerce is the public's confidence - and the biggest worry is security.

So is e-shopping safe?

For Nicole Swift, the idea of fighting the Christmas crowds to buy her parents a gift was just too much. So she turned to e-shopping for a solution. Sadly, she found the Net wanting.

At the Fortnum and Mason's site, Ms Swift's order of a 100-Christmas hamper didn't process. When she tried to order again, the site thought she wanted two hampers.

Shopping online
Worried: go to brands you trust
"If they couldn't process the order, how could I be sure that my credit card number wasn't going to go out onto the Internet," Ms Swift said.

The luxury retailer calls the glitch "teething problems" but maintains that the problem was with the ordering system. There was never any danger of her personal details getting onto the Net.

Nevertheless, Web merchants should heed the old saying, once bitten, twice shy. Ms Swift says she won't be buying online any time soon.

And she's not alone. A recent Mori poll found that half of Britons feared the threat of Net fraud.

What's dangerous? The real world

According to those in the e-commerce know, the dangers of shopping on the Internet are perhaps the 90s greatest urban myth. Customers are at no greater risk shopping online than when they shop by mail, over the phone or even in a High Street store.

"E-commerce is absolutely safe," said Nick Jones, a European e-commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications in London.

"The Internet hasn't invented new forms of fraud," he said. In fact, he thinks the Internet may even be more safe. Aware that scare stories threaten their business, Mr Jones says Internet retailers are working overtime to make sure that there is no fraud.

"It's a perception problem," says Tim Clark, a veteran Internet journalist for CNET News.com, a popular technology news site. In a recent column, he tried to debunk the myth of rampant fraud on the Net by challenging readers to send him their shopping horror stories. He got dozens of responses but no one cited a verifiable case where a credit card number had been stolen as it crossed over the Net.

Trust not trading

Internet trading, it turns out, is more about trust than about safety. That's where brands and customer service come in.

Simon Murdoch, managing director of Amazon.co.uk, the British subsidiary of the Web's star bookseller, says that even though his site has never had any problems with fraud, it prominently posts a security statement.

"We give people options," said Mr Murdoch. "If after reading the security statement, people are still worried they can enter their order without giving personal details and then phone in the rest."

"It is safe. It's about making customers feel safe."

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