Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

12.12. Is it safe to send credit card information over the Internet?

The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. Some folks will tell you that you should never, ever, give anyone your credit card number via the Internet. Others will say that using a credit card over the Internet is no more dangerous than forking over your plastic in an unfamiliar restaurant.

The more paranoid folks say that it would be a simple task for some Internet cracker to write a "network sniffer" program to scan for credit card numbers as packets fly through the Internet. Such a program could watch, for example, an online bookstore for folks placing orders. Said evil user could then, armed with dozens of names, credit card numbers ,and expiration dates, go on a shopping spree.

Well, I suppose it could happen (and it probably will eventually). Then again, I've taken my chances by ordering stuff online using a credit card (some compact discs and a magazine subscription to be exact). It seems more likely to me that a waiter in a restaurant or a salesperson in a department store will get my credit card number by saving carbons than a network cracker. You take your chances both ways, but the odds are usually stacked in your favor.

So the piece of advice I can give is this: use your best judgment and trust your gut feelings. If you connect to an online store that seems reputable, go ahead and order something from them. If you have any doubts, jot down their telephone number and place your order over the phone (assuming you don't think your phone is bugged, too!) Make sure you're in control: if you ever get an unsolicited electronic mail message or telephone call asking for your credit card number, don't give it out. Kapiche?

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