Money: Would you buy a used car on this website?

THE INTERNET is one of the world's greatest egalitarian forces. Small companies can compete with huge conglomerates, and individuals have the same buying power and influence regardless of their age, sex or background.

But the net's anonymity means it can also be hard to tell if the product you are buying is a dog, or if you are dealing with a rogue company. Fraud and misrepresentation are serious concerns, and financial regulators have warned investors to be cautious when they deal with unfamiliar companies online.

Consumers looking for goods or services on the net need to know that companies are who they say they are, and that they operate certain standards of security - in the way they handle credit-card transactions, for example. The problem is that there is no established way to verify this. When it comes to shopping on the high street, there are plenty of clues to prove that a company is really what it seems. On the net there's only the website, and it doesn't take much technical know-how to make a convincing copy of a web page.

So far, most fake sites have been humorous or political rather than fraudulent, but the risk is there. One way to protect companies and their customers is to use site certificates, which prove that a site is legitimate. Usually they are issued by third-party organisations with an established reputation online.

BT has a vested interest in successful electronic commerce, and its brand is trusted on the net. It has developed Site Seal so that firms using BT internet services can prove their status to consumers.

BT operates a server certification system, where it checks that its clients' websites are secure in critical areas such as storing credit-card records and encryption. BT has more than 1,000 customers with certified secure sites. At present, only a few are displaying the Site Seal logo, but BT hopes more will do so in the next few months.

BT is working with a number of financial institutions, and several big- brand retailers are set to adopt Site Seal in the run-up to Christmas. The hope is that people who are wary about buying online will be reassured by Site Seal, and that fraudsters will find it harder to make their mark on the net.


Share aware

The London Stock Exchange is promoting private share ownership with its Share Aware campaign. The Share Aware website is a valuable resource for anyone thinking about investing in the stock market for the first time. The site includes a comprehensive introduction to stocks and shares, an explanation of how stockbrokers work and where to find one, and details of Share Aware events.


Soaraway Citibank

Citibank has one of the best online banking sites for UK individuals. It targets high earners and frequent travellers; it is one of the few financial institutions to allow overseas money transfers via the internet. Citibank's current account has other useful features, such as decent interest on credit balances and low overdraft charges. Anyone who opens a Citibank current account over the net by the end of this month qualifies for a free flight to Paris or to Amsterdam.


n Stephen Pritchard can be contacted at: