Nervous about shooting your credit card number and personal data out into cyberspace? Despite 17 million American households estimated to have flocked to on-line shopping, millions of people remain ill at ease with e-commerce.

There's a big difference between handing your credit card to a waiter and sending it into a network where, if mishandled, your card number could go anywhere in the world in seconds. Or your name, address, and shopping habits could get zapped to merciless spammers and catalog houses eager to clog your mailbox and e-mail with unwanted offers.

On the other hand, many specialists think fears about the security risks of e-commerce are are the same as getting in your car and driving to the mall.

Virtually every large, reputable business selling goods and services over the Web uses elaborate encryption technology that, during a transaction, keeps your card number better protected.

Encryption technology basically scrambles your number and operates much like a kryponite envelope.

Furthermore, if you use a credit card for your Web purchases, the federal Truth in Lending Act limits your liability for unauthorized purchases on your card to $50 per theft. Some companies offer Internet-based cards that purportedly release you from any liability for unauthorized charges.

Worrying about you're credit card being misused isn't what you should be worried about. The security of the data about yourself you reveal to the merchant is the true concern. When making purchases, you tell a business some very valuable information such as who you are, where you live, what you like to buy and perhaps how much money you make. Companies can make a lot of money selling and trading this kind of data.

Federal Trade chairman Robert Pitofsky told the New York Times earlier this autumn that it is still unsure as to whether self-regulation will work in the case of the Internet. "There is no doubt that the industry has made much progress as it has recently, I don't see how you can really argue that we need legislation."

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