Is E-Commerce Safe?

First Published:
Date Published: 1997
Copyright © 1997 by Kevin Savetz

Kevin Savetz: I'm feeling paranoid, Neil. Internet commerce is finally starting to hit the big time, and despite the thrill of shopping for muffins and CDs and computer books and pantyhose at 3 AM from the privacy of my home, I just can't bring myself to completely trust those sites that sell stuff via the Net. Seems to me there's just too many things that can go wrong, not the least of which is that some Net hacker will sniff my packets, get my credit card number and find out that I prefer blueberry muffins.

Do you think Internet commerce is safe? I'm not convinced that little blue bar and "locked key" icon are enough to assure secure, safe purchases over the Net.

Neil Randall: Let me guess, Kevin - you still keep your cash in the cookie jar for fear the banks will go under, right? Well, I've spent roughly $3000 (yep, that's three *grand*) over the Web during 1997, mostly on books, CDs, and computer hardware and software, and I'm happy. Does that mean I don't realize that hackers can "sniff my packets" and steal my credit card number? No, of course not. But I could never figure out why people who think nothing of giving out their credit card over the phone to a pizza joint down the street, or to somebody selling videos or CDs advertised on TV, would balk at doing the same over the Net? These same people give their credit cards to part-time waiters in restaurants, with no fear that the waiter is going to take down the number and expiry date and start ordering a new wardrobe from Land's End or wherever. Then there's the other one, the people who won't send their credit card over the Net, but who'll happily fax it to the company. We all know how secure fax machines are - they're usually in the middle of the bloody office, available to anyone who walks by! Internet commerce is as safe as any other credit card or debit card commerce system. Safer, in fact. There are fewer hackers out there who know how to steal credit card numbers than there are thieves ready to take your wallet.

Does that ease your paranoia a bit? Or do you need someone to take you by the hand and make sure the big bad hacker bullies don't get to you?

Kevin Savetz: Turn down the Manilow, you mooselover. No, your little fairy story doesn't ease my mind at all. In fact, you've made my point exactly. All it takes to have your credit card number stolen in your home town is a single gas station attendant whose eyes are bigger than his wallet. But when you're online, when you see those magic words "secure server," why do you think that somehow makes things safe? Once your credit card number makes its way to that Web site, what do you think happens to it? Some underpaid sales dude or maybe an underpaid webmaster has your credit card number in his hot little hands. He doesn't even have to risk the pangs of guilt that might come from looking you in the eye, because you're 500 miles away. The pundits are right, shopping on the Internet IS convenient. For the bad guys.

The fact is, you have no idea what happens after your credit card number reaches that remote web site -- it might be left in a world-readable file on a Unix machine, or e-mailed -- unencrypted -- to an AOL account. Face it, that little key in the corner of your browser window means nothing. If someone wants to rob you, they're going to find a way. And if you think your credit card was filched at the local video store, you can drive down there and kick some butt. What are you going to do if someone at steals your credit card -- threaten them via e-mail? If you believe online commerce is safer than offline commerce, Neil, it's time to replace your bong water.

Furthermore -- at the risk of overwhelming you with too many ideas -- why buy CDs and books and computer parts online when you can go to a nearby store and support your local economy? Does your agoraphobia and fear of interacting with real people prevent that? Or are you too cheap to spend a few cents more and contribute to the local tax base?

Neil Randall: Call in the hypertension experts - Kevin's on a blood pressure roll! I mean - "mooselover"? "Bong water"? Gosh, Kevin, my ego can barely stand up to the sophisticated assault. But enough about you - back to e-commerce.

I buy books and CDs online because (a) it's more convenient, (b) it's cheaper. In that order. I live in a relatively small city, and many of the CDs I bought in the past year (usually replacements for my older vinyl albums) just weren't available locally. Either that, or I'd have to pay $24.95 for a CD that I could get online for $9.95. I can get books faster and cheaper from or Barnes & Noble online -- and more readily than here. I'd love to buy locally, but they don't often have what I want, and I'd rather order from my desk than hop in my car and head for a store. Fact is, I don't like music or bookstores. I walk into them, and I instantly get turned off buying anything. Online, I can pick and choose and order as I like, while the enthusiasm is still there. Besides, most of the books I bought were academic things (for my job), and they're rarely available in stores. Face it - I'm a perfect target for e-commerce.

But on to security. All you've succeeded in doing is offering a bit of a corrective on my original stance, which I accept (occasionally, you make a worthwhile point). So now I realize that using my credit card is dangerous anywhere. Big surprise. My own banks have a policy where I'm legally responsible for only the first $50 of purchases that appear that I haven't made myself (I've used this defense in the past successfully), so it's not a huge issue to me. And if I were advising someone, I'd tell them not to make a great big deal out of buying over the Web. Do it once or twice using a credit card with a relatively small limit, or one that's already jammed near the maximum, and see how it goes. I think e-commerce is going to be a major sales force in the future, and people should get used to it now.

You, of course, may continue to pay with your neat little rolls of coins.

Articles by Kevin Savetz