The dotted line

Just sign on the dotted line."

The first time I heard those words was in a church-quiet bank. I must have been all of six years old. My father was pointing to a form. We were opening my first savings account, and I was to sign my full legal name (of course, at 6 I didn't know I had a full legal name - James J. Bencivenga).

But what will fathers do in the not too distant future? And the rest of us as well? There may not be any dotted line to sign.

E-business is likely to do for the signed contract what the first Portuguese sailors looking for the Spice Islands did for the Dodo - club it into extinction. (See story page 14 on Internet contracts.)

I've already clicked "yes" to let my long-distance phone carrier and my Internet provider tap my credit card each month. Each gave me a better rate than if I paid by handwritten check.

The concern of course is twofold: first the incredible nuisance of a billing mistake (try and get e-commerce transactions fixed online). But much more troublesome is fraudulent use of my credit by someone who somehow grabs the numbers off the Web.

If some alleged grad student in the Philippines can send out a virus called "I Love You" and cost the biggest computer businesses in the world more than $1 billion in damages, well, just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean the hackers won't get my electronic signature and cost me plenty.

What happens when I want to flourish my John Hancock, using a fountain pen when I sign a legally binding contract and the other party says, "Sorry, that'll cost you $500 more if you don't do it online." Well, right now I'll find someone else to do business with. In the future, I don't know.

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