Editorial: Bills, Bills, Bills

I used to laugh at those people who refuse to participate in online commerce due to security concerns. The mere mention of the word "e-commerce" would cause them to furrow their brow, lower their voice in a really serious manner and utter something along the lines of: "Oh, I don't want those damn computer hackers getting my credit card numbers. I'll stick to cash, thank you very much."

I'd scoff and try to explain that giving your card details to a reputable Internet site was tantamount to giving them over the phone or to a waitress at a restaurant. There'd be no problems as long as the site was reasonably well known and listed a street address or telephone number, in case something went wrong.

I had an experience recently that forced me to join the ranks of those who avoid Internet payments - for a while at least.

In the space of two days, I made several visits to a couple of sites that sell books and CDs, both in Australia and the United States. They're both very well known and I'd heard nothing but positive feedback about them from friends and colleagues, so I thought to myself: "There'll be no problems."

I hadn't given my number to any other Web sites previously, and I haven't since.

The thing is, when I received my next Visa bill, it had four "foreign currency" transactions, one of which was from some German company. I hadn't bought anything else from overseas destinations, so they had to be Web-related.

Of course, transactions from the two sites I had visited were there, clearly labelled, so I had no problem paying those. But I did baulk at paying the two $US39.95 ($70 Australian each!) charges I'd apparently racked up at some company called PayCorp 4439697849 (or something similar), along with the fees from my newfound Deutsch friends.

Off to my local branch I trotted, determined not to let those e-commerce naysayers be proven right. "It's just a bank error", I hoped, knowing how fragile their systems often are.

After waiting the obligatory fifteen minutes in the branch queue and voicing my concerns loud enough to penetrate the six-inch thick security glass, I was told it would require an investigation to determine who was right - little old me with my pitiful savings account, or them with their powerful, all-conquering computer systems.

It was a foregone conclusion.

A couple of days later I was told that I had lost my appeal. It was up to me to prove that I hadn't spent the cash, rather than up to them to prove that I had.

So, defeated, I coughed up the money and retreated with little more than a whimper. What else could I do?

Things took a turn for the worse, however, when I received my next bill. On top of a $20 charge for two so-called "transaction verification fees", I was again hit with two more mysterious charges from Germany and PayCorp 4439697849 totalling about $90. I hadn't used my card at any more sites - in fact, in the preceding month I had only used it once at my local take-away, and I was present when it was swiped. The only other suspects could have been my wife or six-month-old daughter, but my wife assures me that her card had been tucked safely out of harm's away and my daughter's motor skills are not yet developed enough to allow her to use a mouse. It had to be an Internet rip-off of some kind.

I was furious, but at the same time, a little bit unsure of what to do next. There was no point in going back to the bank asking for its intrepid investigation team to look into the matter - it's got no idea about how to handle the technical vagaries of the Internet, and doesn't seem to want to learn. As I see it, banks and credit card companies need to take a little more initiative. Instead of just using the Internet as a cost-cutting mechanism, they should try applying a little common sense by developing some up-to-date rules on how to service their customers and reduce Net fraud - just as they do in the "real" world.

Nevertheless, I'm just a journalist and can't afford a monthly bill of almost one hundred bucks just because I decided to practice what I preach and spent some of my hard-earned dollars online.

I still have no idea how my credit card details became known to these foreign "organisations" and I'm not technically-minded enough to launch my own investigative proceedings, so I guess I'm going to have to write it all off as a bad - and expensive - experience.

Just to set the record straight, I'm not saying that the two Web stores I visited had been hacked into or had voluntarily given out my digits, but I am concerned on two levels. Firstly, how these fraudsters got my credit details, and secondly, why the bank/credit card companies involved aren't developing more stringent mechanisms to protect its customers who choose to shop online.

And what have I done about my monthly foray into the world of German commerce? Well, suffice it to say, I've cancelled the card and won't be re-joining the e-commerce revolution at any time soon.

Let me know what you think.

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