Internet shopping is safe, says Consumer Association

The Which? report claims that peoples' fear about online fraud are out of proportion to the real risks involved
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor

The Consumer Association (CA) has stuck its neck out in reassuring British consumers that their fears of shopping online are out of proportion with the real risks involved.

The Which? Guide to Money on the Internet finds that despite the lack of clarity on UK Internet fraud laws, consumers should feel safe about shopping online. "There is a lot of protection for consumers now, and people should feel reasonably secure about entering their credit card details online," said Jonquil Lowe, author of the report.

But Internet security breaches have become a matter of course -- last month the credit card details of 127 Dabs.com customers were compromised online by one of the company's software merchants due to a "human error". Lowe admits that customers are most concerned about the security of their money when shopping online, and are worried about the possibility of someone accessing their bank account details online. But according to the Which? report, there are ways of bypassing these risks.

In Lowe's opinion, smartcards or "slash plastic" offer a safe alternative to entering credit card details online, allowing the consumer to control the amount of money that is held on the debit card. "Securior also offers a safe door system which handles the payment side of things -- it screens your personal details in advance so that they don't need to be entered online, and the actual transaction is handled by Securior," said Lowe.

The report advises that another option is to have a second credit card with a small credit limit, or to open a separate bank account with a separate debit card.

But according to Lowe, banks present the real risks associated with shopping online. "A lot of banks say that if you are a victim of computer fraud, you won't be liable for any loss incurred before you contact them," said Lowe. "But it is hard to say where liability lies, as a few banks make the consumer fully liable. This is outrageous, as there is a big incentive for banks to get you online." The author of the report reasons that if the financial risk is small, it is unreasonable for a bank to leave a customer liable, while if the risk is large, a customer is not in a position to handle a responsibility of this size.

Virgin places the entire burden of proof on the consumer in an Internet fraud case. Its terms and conditions state that a customer is responsible for all instructions sent to them, even when the transaction instructions are sent by someone other than the account holder. Alliance and Leicester, Bank of Scotland, First E, NatWest and Virgin all left the customer liable for Internet fraud.

"We don't want to be in a situation where the burden of proof is left on the consumer -- these are normal consumer transactions," said Lowe.

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