Anyone who buys with a credit card over the Internet is a fool destined to be parted from his money. You just can't trust the Internet.
This is the stereotype, and like many stereotypes, it's a mess of foolishness surrounding a few scattered grains of truth.
According to a recent study by VISA USA, 91% of consumers are "concerned about the level of security on the Internet."
In reality, buying over the Internet is as safe as or safer than buying with a credit card over the telephone. But, as with shopping offline, much depends on the particular businesses you may patronize.
Technology is part of the solution here. More and more Web shopping sites are using encryption to scramble any credit card information you type in. That prevents hackers from intercepting your information and using it, say, to finance a Caribbean vacation. The particular type of encryption used is called Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL.
It's easy to tell if a site is using SSL - whether you're using Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer as your browser. As you load a page that's stored on an SSL-secured server, Netscape 4 will inform you, "You have requested a secure document." Similarly, Internet Explorer 4 will announce, "You are about to view pages over a secure connection."
With either browser, the address of the page itself will begin with "https" instead of "http" (the extra "s" stands for "secure"). With Netscape 4, at the bottom left of your screen, you'll see a small icon of a closed padlock. With Internet Explorer 4, you'll see a closed padlock at the bottom of your screen closer to the middle.
Not all shopping sites use SSL. The software that makes it possible, available from browser manufacturers, is expensive. And, as an online shopper, you have to use Netscape Navigator 2.0 or above or Internet Explorer 2.1 or above to take advantage of it.
Even if you do shop at a Web site that uses SSL, there's little to prevent an unscrupulous employee from taking the credit card information you've provided and using it for his own purchases. But the risk here is no different from doing mail-order shopping over the phone.
SSL or not, it's very difficult to come by information about anyone who's had credit card information stolen over the Internet. Most hackers approach their pastime as an intellectual challenge. They're after big prizes, such as the Pentagon, not small potatoes from individual consumers.
Also, it's simply easier to steal credit card information offline. Most illicit credit card activity over the Internet, in fact, involves the trading of credit card information that was stolen offline.
Typically, "carders" steal credit card information by rifling through trash or intercepting postal deliveries. They then trade the information among themselves in chat rooms or illicit Web sites.
If, by a stroke of bad luck, you are a victim of credit card theft, online or off, you have some protection. Credit card companies will hold you responsible for a maximum of $50 in fraudulent charges. Some Web shopping sites promise to cover all losses.
That's just another reason to stick with known commodities - recommended Web shopping sites. The following are ten of the better-known and most reliable Web shopping sites:
* Amazon.com (www.amazon. com) bills itself as the world's largest bookstore and offers discount prices and cutting-edge personalization.
* CDnow (www.cdnow.com) is known as the world's largest music store and has a terrific search tool.
* Reel (www.reel.com) calls itself the largest video store, with thousands of movie videos for rent and sale.
* Virtual Vineyards (www.virtualvin.com) offers an abundant selection of wine, gourmet food and good advice.
* Virtual Flowers (www.virtualflowers.com) lets you send both real flowers and "virtual bouquets."
* Auto-By-Tel (www.autobytel.com) allows you to receive no-haggle price quotes from more than two thousand car dealers.
* NetGrocer (www.netgrocer. com) lets you shop for groceries online and have them delivered via Federal Express.
* Computer Discount Warehouse (www.cdw.com) is a widely known mail-order vendor of computers, software and peripherals with a massive online catalog.
* OnSale (www.onsale. com) stages auctions of computer equipment, consumer electronics, and sporting equipment.
* Chumbo.com (www. chumbo.com) provides good pricing on commercial software.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@ne taxs.com or members. home.net/reidgold