Buying Online: But how safe is it really?

THE GREATEST drawback to electronic commerce is the public's suspicion of entering their details on to an Internet site, particular when it comes to credit cards.

Beth Barling of consultant's Ovum believes that these fears are over- exaggerated.

"People they are really terrified about putting their details out over the Internet, but in reality the chances of crime are tiny," she says.

"It's as safe or unsafe as giving your credit card number over the phone or by fax," says Wendy Grossman, a columnist covering Web-based shopping for the retail industry newsletter Future Shopping.

"Ultimately, the issue isn't whether the technology is safe, but whether you trust the company you're buying from to be honest, fulfil its orders, and implement its security correctly. I've been buying things online since 1995 and have never had a problem."

No one has a clear measure of how the extent of internet crime because there is so little that it is almost impossible to measure. Moreover, there are so many other easier ways to get access to people's credit card information.

Have you noticed how much you trust others with your credit card. You go somewhere you have never been before, give a total stranger your credit card, they disappear from view to process it- and nothing goes wrong.

In fact credit card crime, where the card is not physically present, is virtually non existent. We spent pounds 100bn via our credit cards in the UK last year. Fraud where credit cards were not stolen or duplicated was valued at just pounds 8.2m - less than 0.01 per cent.

The Internet is far more secure than any other form of communications. Only a tiny number of email messages include credit card details, so to find the right message with credit card details, a hacker would have to scan hundreds of communications.

If information was sent in plain form, there could be a problems. But nearly every commercial site uses encryption between your computer and the site with which you are doing business. If someone did intercept your message all they would see would be meaningless junk.

In any case, if money was taken out of your account, unless you have been involved in a fraud or have been grossly negligent, the card company would have to reimburse you

Still, it is worth keeping a diary of your Web purchases and perhaps use a particular card for Internet dealings; that way you can soon spot if anything untoward happens.