SAN FRANCISCO — You're bopping around the World Wide Web checking out cool sites and you stop in at one of the shiny new on-line malls sprouting up. There's that CD you've been meaning to get. You pull out your credit card, and you - stop.
Technology hasn't stopped you; the technical part of making a purchase by computer was worked out long ago. What has stopped you is your own mistrust - the worry that by inputting your credit card number into a computer, you are opening yourself up to fraud. Perhaps, you think, some hacker will take my number and buy a new skateboard.
In fact, public fear of security risks on the Internet is stalling the boom many companies anticipated. But experts say sending your credit card number over the Internet is as safe as calling up L.L. Bean and ordering a sweater.
"If a person's standards are that they're not willing to send their credit card over the Internet, they probably shouldn't order anything by phone or from a store where they don't know the proprietor," says Rod Kuckro of Information and Interactive Services Report.
Stories about wily hackers stealing thousands of credit card numbers have created the public perception that the Internet is a dangerous place to do business. Security problems have been overhyped, even according to Simson Garfinkel, author of "Pretty Good Privacy," a book on one of the strongest publicly available encryption programs. Encryption uses complex mathematical algorithms to turn computer files into a soup of letters and numbers unreadable by anyone except the person for whom they are intended.
Scares about security loopholes on the Internet only really affect large corporations who use computers to transfer sensitive information. Individuals buying a few CD's on-line aren't at risk, Garfinkel says.
"To convince shoppers to take the plunge into electronic commerce, San Mateo, Calif.-based eShop counters consumer fears by taking the direct approach.
"We have what we call the 'eShop Secure Purchase Guarantee.' If you have any financial loss due to the use of your credit card at eShop plaza, we cover you," says chief operating officer Matt Kurt. "We're not going to explain 128-bit public key encryption to you - you don't care. But what we will say is that you're not going to lose any money."