Survey Says: Some 'Net Users No Longer Shopping Online
A new survey from Consumer Reports contains some interesting findings about the level of trust that consumers place in Internet commerce, including evidence that roughly 25 percent of Internet users no longer shop online because of fears over identity theft and fraud.
The study, conducted for Consumer Reports Web Watch earlier this year by Princeton Survey Research Associates Intl., polled 1,501 adult Internet users about a wide range of consumer attitudes towards the Web. Nearly nine out of ten said they had made changes to their behavior online due to the fear of ID theft, and of those changes, 30 percent said they had reduced their overall use of the Internet. Among those surveyed who said they have shopped online (77 percent), 29 percent said they have cut back on how often they buy things over the Internet.
Identity theft is among the fastest growing form of online fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission. So it should probably come as little surprise that consumers are growing more wary of giving away their personal and financial information online.
After reading this survey, I worry that many users are just getting scared away from the Internet by all the real stories of online fraud. Sure, it's important that users know the Internet can be a dangerous place. But it's also true that computer users can empower themselves and take responsibility for practicing safe cyber-security.
No doubt that a great many consumers become victims of identity theft and fraud through no fault of their own. But I'm willing to bet that a fair percentage of those surveyed who said they were using the Internet less these days were burned by a bad experience online, one that may even have been due to their own negligence. I say this because I have done a fair amount of reporting over the past nine months where I've spoken with people who hack into computers for a living -- using viruses, worms and keylogger devices that record everything people type on their keyboards.
From those conversations, some scary realities came to light. For example, it is not unusual for one individual armed with various hacking tools and a little know-how to gain control over thousands of credit card and bank account numbers and their owners' personal information in an awfully short period of time. More often than not, the attacker gets this data by using automated tools to scour the Internet for home PCs that are unguarded by essential lines of defense, such as software security patches and firewalls.
I've been writing about the threat from phishing for more than 18 months now, and it's tempting to think that public awareness of these scams is on the rise. Perhaps it is, but as recently as six months ago, I had the opportunity to peer into a database clearly set up to receive information sent in by phishing victims. That particular phishing scam stole information on nearly a hundred victims.
In August, more than 5,200 unique phishing sites were spotted online, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group. Not all phishing scams are created equal (many are completely lame and quite obviously fraudulent), but if only a fraction of phishing sites take in as many people as scam I saw, you start to get a feel for the sheer number of people who are still blithely handing over their most private information to fraudsters.
One figure I found a bit surprising about this study was the level of public trust placed in online auctions: More than 60 percent of those surveyed said they trust online auction sites "a lot" or "somewhat." I'm not sure exactly how representative of the overall Internet population the folks who answered this survey were. But this finding is worrisome, given that auction fraud was by far the most frequent type of online fraud reported last year, according to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, comprising some 71.2 percent of complaints in 2004.
October 26, 2005; 1:01 PM ET
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