Online shopping offers convenience and saves money for both the purchaser and the merchant, yet many people hesitate to take advantage of it. When something is new, we aren't always comfortable with it.

The benefits are attractive, but security is an issue in many minds. Are you taking an unreasonable risk when you use a credit card to shop over the Internet? The answer is a resounding "NO." The big fear people have is some hacker will intercept their credit card data and ruin their credit with an unauthorized shopping spree.

Do you ever use your credit card over the phone or give a PO number by phone or fax? These transactions contain unen-crypted data, and someone can intercept them if you use a cordless or cellular phone. You entrust your unencrypted credit card information to the U.S. Postal Service if you do mail order. You shop at stores, hotels, and restaurants that don't secure that information. The risk is not so great, in these circumstances, to prevent you from reaping the benefits. The risk is even less when you shop online over a secure server. The operative word is "secure."

What makes a server secure? A secure ordering system uses a form script that encodes the credit card information at your computer. The resulting gobbledygook then goes out over the Internet via a path nobody knows, and onto the server that will process your order.

A typical secure server program costs $5000 or more and is no small feat to set up. There's a small fortune for the hardware and other items to make it all work. Companies making that kind of investment employ administrative and other measures to ensure they get their money's worth and don't endanger their reputation for having a secure ordering system. That's because they have a vested interest in protecting your credit card information.

Last year, consumers lost several million dollars because of cellular phone fraud, but consumers did not lose a single penny on a secure ordering system due to fraudulent use of a credit card over the Internet.

How to tell a server is secure There are a couple of ways to tell if a server is secure. Some merchants say they have secure servers, but they don't. At the time of this writing, CEE News advertisers who say they have secure servers do have secure servers. Still, it pays to check.

One way is to check the online ordering form for a secure server symbol. In Microsoft's Explorer, it will be a tiny padlock at the bottom toward the right-hand corner of the IE window. Look closely at this lock: If it's open, you do not have a secure server. If it's closed, you do. In Netscape's browsers, you get a little key on the bottom and toward the left-hand corner. The key will appear solid and be on a blue background. If that's not what you have, do not put your credit card information on that page.

The other way is interesting, too. Some merchants use secure servers with Secure Socket Layer (SSL) transmission. This enables them to encrypt any data sent to their web server. In turn, their server will encrypt any data sent back to your web browser. It's common to send order confirmation notices this way. When placing an order, you will notice that on the page where you enter your personal information, the URL will change from "http" to "https." The appended "s" indicates you are on a secured page. Verisign is a third party that certifies the SSLDigital ID. This means you can safely enter your entire credit card number when prompted by an online purchasing system; it's unreadable in transit.

How to order online Many stores give you the option of browsing around the store or going directly to the specific product you wish to purchase. Typically, the pages with secure server scripts are only those that ask you for sensitive information. Let's look at one store (unnamed) as an example of how you might shop. It's an online computer super store loaded with free content (tech tips, tax help, job help, chat forums, special interest directories, look up pages, links pages, goofy videos, and stuff for webmasters). It also has non-computer products. It's a massive site, but you can find your way around it in a flash.

The store contains mini-web sites for each of these major categories. Let's say you go to the software mini-web site. It's divided into major categories such as Entertainment Software, Internet Software, Computer Training, and Regulatory Compliance. You can browse these categories using the buttons on the left side of your browser window (some sites have buttons across the top, some have them on the left).

The nice thing about a store like this is you don't have to wade through all the items. Most stores have a Search function that allows you to find what you need quickly. Without a search function, you browse major categories and quickly drill down to where you need to be. Browsing categories is similar to going to a section of a book or music store and then finding the exact shelf with the exact item you need. Selecting a category leads you to subcategories and then to specific products with corresponding descriptions and pricing. In this example store, when you find the software you are interested in you can purchase it online by clicking on the Pricing/Purchase Information link. This site, like many others, allows you to use the mail, phone, or fax.

Any secure server site should have a statement prohibiting purchase by minors. This is because under contract law, no merchant can hold a minor liable to a contract. A "no purchases by minors" statement does not indicate the site is pornographic or offensive in any way. So, don't be put off by it.