credit cards

Shop safely on the Web

Little audience

Yet sometimes consumers don't like the solutions banks or card companies offer either. One example: one-time use numbers. American Express launched a program offering consumers the option of disposable numbers for online shopping, but has discontinued it. "We were actually surprised to find that it was not as popular as anticipated," says Kim Messina, spokeswoman for American Express.

Some banks issuing Visa cards offer one-time use numbers while others don't, says Yakel. "We've looked at those types of products for over four years now," he says. "While we think there is some opportunity there in providing consumer confidence, there are also some limitations in the technology."

The major problem is that with no way to match a one-time number to a card, customers are limited in their ability to order merchandise online and later pick it up in person.

Still, some credit fans like the idea. "I still think it's a good program for those consumers who are concerned about online card usage," says Curtis Arnold, founder and spokesman for CardRatings.com.

"It's an extra step, but not a huge inconvenience," he says.

Passwords times two

The jury is still out on the use of an extra password when shopping online. Passwords are easy to use, usually adding one extra step to an online purchase. But to use a password, both the e-merchant and the consumer must be signed up for the program.

How a consumer can sign up will vary with the card and bank. Visa offers password protection to consumers directly, and the service is voluntary. MasterCard makes its service available through their participating banks. "Some banks make it an optional program," says Rutherford. "Others implement a mandatory process."

Certainly nothing is foolproof. But programs such as extra password protection, "are just an extra layer of protection you give yourself," says Arnold.

The hassle factor

But why should consumers even care about theft or fraud if they're not on the hook for charges?

Short answer: the hassle factor. If a crook takes your number and runs up a big bill, it's an inconvenience. But if that same thief uses your account number to "become" you, opening up new charge accounts and running up bills, it can take months or years to straighten out the situation and your credit can suffer in the meantime.

"Prevention is the key, and it's certainly less expensive than recovery," Messina says.

Even in the case of a one-time theft of an account number protected under a zero liability policy, you have to be able to document to the credit card company's satisfaction that you were the victim of fraud or online theft.

"You're talking about a headache any time you become a victim of fraud," says Arnold. "If you can avoid the headache ...."

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