When it comes to buying online, credit cards are the only way to fly.
"The bottom line is that people feel a lot safer (using credit cards)," says Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for Consumer Action, a nonprofit advocacy and education group. "Much as I advocate pay-as-you-go, when shopping online or with merchants you don't know, a credit card is a lot safer."
But not all credit cards are created equal. Depending on your card brand and the issuing bank, your plastic may offer some, all or none of the following:
Zero liabilityUpside: Offered by credit card issuers, including Visa, MasterCard, DiscoverCard and American Express. When someone steals your credit card and makes charges without your permission, you are responsible for the first $50. But if your card offers "zero liability," you aren't responsible for any amount.
Downside: Some cards require that you adhere to certain rules, like reporting the fraud within a certain length of time, so it pays to know how your card works.
One-time use/virtual or temporary numbersUpside: Offered by credit card issuers, including Discover; also by some banks, including MBNA. You download a piece of software from your card's site or go to the site and login to your account and get a "disposable" number, good for one online purchase only.
Downside: Some cards will let you use these for recurring charges (like that monthly club membership) for up to a year, others won't. And you can't use them to pay for things online that you will pick up in person, such as airline tickets. The reason: Many times merchants want to verify that you're the person who paid for the goods, and will ask you to show the card you used for the purchase. With a disposable number, the two won't match.
Extra passwordsUpside: Offered by credit card issuers, including Visa and MasterCard. Similar to the system you use when you sign in for your e-mail. With this program, you include an extra password, known only to you and the card company or bank, when you buy from certain online merchants.
Downside: Not every e-tailer who accepts the card online participates in the program. So technically, if someone steals your number, they could still use it plenty of places online without knowing your password.
Bottom line: Read the fine print and choose your card carefully before you point, click and buy.
Fraud shieldSmart consumers always reach for a credit card when they buy online because cards offer charge-back rights and a shopper's liability is limited to $50 in case of fraud or theft.
Zero liability adds another layer of armor. When it comes to shielding a consumer from online fraud or theft, "the greatest tool is zero liability," says Michael Yakel, vice president, emerging product management at Visa USA.
Security issuesBut no matter how popular Internet shopping becomes, there are still those who don't feel comfortable putting their private financial information into the ether.
When MasterCard did a survey of its card holders in 2002, 70 percent indicated that they were concerned about security and fraud issues, says Bruce Rutherford, vice president, e-business and emerging technologies with MasterCard International. Of those who indicated they were worried about security, 46 percent said they would shop online more often if security were stronger.