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EDITIONS
E-commerce Wednesday, 16 December, 1998, 14:51 GMT
Is e-shopping safe?
computer under lock and key
Convenient but is it safe?
For Nicole Swift, the idea of fighting the Christmas crowds to buy her parents a gift was just too much.

E-commerce
Not only would the 33-year-old Australian have to cut through swathes of tourists, Christmas carols and garish lights but she'd also have to fight queues at the post office to mail it to her parents in Melbourne.

There was only one solution: the Internet.

The problem was, e-shopping was not the solution Ms Swift hoped for. 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.

"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. So is e-shopping safe?

What's dangerous? The real world

Shopping online
Worried: go to brands you trust
According to those in the e-commerce know, the dangers of shopping on the Internet are perhaps 1998's 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. (See related story: How e-shopping works)

"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."

Caution counts

So what can you do to make sure your credit card information is safe?

  • Evaluate the site: Does it look cheap? Is it a brand you know? Do they provide you with alternative ways of contacting them like a phone or fax in case something goes wrong? Remember: Anyone could set up a site for the purpose of collecting credit card numbers and not ship anything.
  • Talk to the merchant first. Email them - do they respond? Do they have safety mechanisms if something should go wrong?
  • Make sure you have a secure connection to the site. Check the lower left-hand corner of your browser for the symbol of an unbroken lock or key. Also look for a URL that begins with "https:\" - that's a sign of a secure connection.
  • Don't send credit card information by email - it's not as safe as the secure connection between your browser and the store.
  • Be especially careful if you are accessing the Internet from a cybercafe or other public connection. Sites show credit card numbers in plain text as typed in. Someone could watch you type or press the back button as many times as necessary after you log off.
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