Bankers Group to Increase Use of Web Site Seal

In the wake of a government warning issued last month about fake bank Web sites conning consumers out of private information, the American Bankers Association (ABA) yesterday launched a campaign to increase awareness of a seal of approval that it says can be used to verify which online banks are real and which are fake.

The SiteCertain seal offered by the ABA lets banks include a link on their Web sites that connects consumers to a secure online database with instructions on how to ensure that they're dealing with a bona fide financial institution. But the seal, which debuted early last year, currently is being used by only about 300 of the 10,000 or so banks in the U.S.

"I don't know that it means that much to customers," said Brooke Newcomb, an analyst at Cambridge, Massachussets-based Forrester Research Inc. "There's just too many seals of approval out there." Newcomb added that most consumers are still reluctant to process financial transactions online and said the presence - or absence - of a seal such as the ABA's isn't likely to make a big difference to them.

Britton & Koontz First National Bank in Natchez, Miss., has featured the seal on the home page of its Web site since the ABA made SiteCertain available. But no customers have commented on it yet, according to Page Ogden, the bank's president and CEO.

"I don't really know how much effect it has at this time," Ogden said. "But this kind of thing is going to become more and more important."

Last month, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) warned that some customers have provided financial information to Web sites that they thought were legitimate online banks, only to find that they were "spoof" sites designed to mimic the actual ones. That creates the potential for thefts of sensitive information such as account numbers and access codes, the OCC said.

As a result of the OCC's action, banks are waking up to the increasing risk that their sites will be spoofed and that their customers could be defrauded, said Stephen Schutze, e-strategies director at the Washington-based ABA. He also said banks are signing up for the SiteCertain certification program in increasing numbers.

"Sometimes it takes something like a warning from the OCC that says, 'Hey, there's bad guys out there trying to take your customers' money,' " Schutze said.

But according to analyst George Barto, an online banking expert at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc., spoofers who want to mimic a banking Web site to con consumers could just as easily mimic the SiteCertain button.

"Even if the bank I was spoofing didn't have that certification, I would put it on," Barto said. "And I could not only spoof the button, I could spoof the Web page that looks exactly like the one that comes from the ABA. And since people don't know what that page looks like, it doesn't even have to look the same."

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