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Monday, November 10, 1997 Published at 15:31 GMT


Cyber shopping takes off

As Christmas draws closer, the spotlight turns on the security of Internet shopping

As cyber shopping sites attempt to take commercial advantage in the run up to Christmas, credit card security is once again becoming the focus of attention.

Last Friday e-Christmas was launched, a new cyber shopping site expecting up to 50,000 hits a day. It allows shoppers to have their Christmas goods delivered to a different address to that of their credit-card.

This feature made it possible for the Mir space crew to order presents for their families back home from the orbiting space station.

Andy Matson, the electronic commerce manager at Microsoft, one of the key partners at e-Christmas, thinks people will be attracted to the site because it will be convenient and easy to use.

But it will also worry many potential users who are reluctant to give out their credit card details over the Internet. Shoppers do not have to verify any of the normal information, such as their date of birth or mother's maiden name, that is required with telephone transactions.

"There should at least be some identification checks made by the company before it allows a purchase to be made, especially if the goods are not going to the cardholder's address," said Wynn Evans, spokesman for the Association of Payment and Clearing Services (APACS).

However, many experts think that fears have been exaggerated because Internet shopping is still relatively new. Most shopping sites, including e-Christmas, use encryption to guard against tampering or interception. Encyption scrambles the card number as it is typed in, so only the intended recipient can decode the number.

Visa International advises its clients to make sure there is some form of encryption and authentication before using their cards. Next year Visa and MasterCard are launching a new security system, Secure Electonic Transaction, SET.

Already being piloted in 38 banks around Europe, the card-holder gets a virtual credit card from their bank, and special software that allows buyer and seller to authenticate each other.

"E-Christmas uses SET where it is available. Otherwise it uses a very powerful encryption system called Secure Socket Layer, SSL, which is the next best available," said a spokeman from Visa.

Shoppers can tell when they are entering a secure zone because symbols appear on their browsers - a solid golden key in the bottom left of the screen in Netscape, and a locked padlock in the bottom right in Internet Explorer.

Another UK-based Internet shopping site, Buckingham Gate, checks the web browser in addition to using encryption. It will only allow shoppers to pass on their card details with a secure browser.

Although Internet shopping is still in its infancy, improved security measures could boost sales dramatically in the next two years. Amazon books is now the world's largest bookstore, selling $5 million (£2.9 million) worth of books last year. Because it has no network of High Street shops to maintain, it is able to offer discounts of up to 40%.

Three quarters of Internet shoppers enjoy buying goods online, while 60% say that is is more convenient than conventional shopping, according to a survey published by the market research company, Verdict. But only 0.07% of current UK retail spending is on the Internet.

E-Christmas is one of several virtual malls of European businesses, hoping to catch up with their US rivals who currently dominate the cyber shopping scene. It works in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and will be able to handle a variety of different currencies through the relevant credit cards.

So if you are looking for a gift this Christmas - from jewellery from Lapland to music from Ghana - remember to check out the growing number of Internet shopping sites.

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