Net.Working: If Web scares you, don't touch the phone

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The other day I called the theater to buy tickets and found myself carefully enunciating the 15 digits of my credit card number to a stranger at the other end of the phone line. She read them back to me and, after we were both sure she had my AmEx number down cold, I hung up.

Hmm. By Internet security standards, you'd have to label me crazy for the way I handled that transaction. There was no encryption (though I suppose I could have carefully mumbled the last four digits no matter how many times she asked me to repeat them); there was only verbal confirmation (and you know how much that's worth); and to this day I still don't know who I dealt with.

You've probably heard this before, but it bears repeating: For ordinary transactions, the Internet is as safe a way to do business as any other.

Is it totally safe? No, not totally. But I've been buying books, CDs and other odds and ends for months, and it doesn't seem much different to me than ordering tickets by phone. Sure, my online purchases target me for cyber-mailing lists, but so do my real-world credit card orders.

Yet whenever the subject of e-commerce comes up, the issue of security is the first to be raised. And of course it is a key issue in the realm of high-end business-to-business commerce, which can involve not only large amounts of money but confidential corporate information as well. That's where the bulk of encryption and security software development is aimed.

But when it comes to smaller, everyday sorts of transactions, whether on a consumer level or simpler business-oriented purchases, the most critical security issue isn't software or encryption, it's psychology. People fear that the Net is insecure, riddled with hackers fishing amidst the packets of data for unsuspecting credit card users, yet they have no concern about reading their card off to a teen-age cashier at the local Domino's pizza.

For companies eager to see Web transactions grow, what's called for is an industry marketing campaign educating people about the real risk levels of e-commerce, which are, in fact, relatively low.

The importance of relieving people's fears on this issue can't be understated. It's clear now that e-commerce and transactional business will be the real profit engine on the Web, whether you're building an industrial marketplace, a consumer mall or a simple cyber-storefront. Once that structure's in place, then serious levels of Web advertising will follow.

So who should carry the ball to get this educational campaign going? Well, I can think of a variety of options. It would be a productive project for any of the Internet advertising associations, perhaps in partnership with the credit card or other financial services companies. Visa and MasterCard are currently working on Web encryption methodology, and should certainly market that message once they agree on a standard. Or it could involve the big computer companies that are positioning themselves as business solution providers.

In fact, my hat's off to IBM and Ogilvy & Mather for their current TV spot showing four guys at a cafe, three of them picking on the fourth for actually using his credit card over the Internet. The point of the ad is that IBM software guarantees security, but it also sends the important message that the Net is increasingly safe for ordinary transactions -- or at least as safe as using the telephone.

David Klein is editor of the Ad Age Group. You can e-mail him at

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