If you've considered shopping in cyberspace with your credit card, you've probably also worried that a hacker might steal your account number, leaving you stuck with a huge tab for charges you didn't make.
No, you're not alone in your concern. Fears of being ripped off online are so pervasive that CompuServe is now peddling its Visa card by promising to reimburse you for fraudulent charges that result from using its plastic on the Net.
AT&T touts a similar guarantee, though the coverage applies only to purchases you make over the company's WorldNet Internet-access service.
As magnanimous as these promises seem, don't feel compelled to drop everything and sign up for these cards. Reason: Both sponsors are offering protection you don't much need.
For one thing, worries about credit-account pilfering on the Net are largely overblown. The so-called browsers created by Netscape and other companies that let you navigate the Web typically scramble your account number by using sophisticated encryption software, which is extremely difficult -- and expensive -- for would-be thieves to crack.
As a result, claims David Weisman, a director at Forrester Research, a firm that analyzes computer technology, you're no more likely to have your card number lifted in virtual reality than you are by, say, a waiter in a restaurant.
"There just aren't many instances of hackers grabbing card numbers over the Internet," he says.
And even if someone did snatch your account number out of the ether, federal law limits your liability to $50 -- the same as if your card were stolen at Wal-Mart.
And as long as you played no part in the fraud, says Bankcard Holders of America executive director Ruth Susswein: "Most card companies won't even hold you to the 50 bucks."
Indeed, spokesmen at both AT&T and CompuServe admitted that they rarely ask cardholders to pay the $50 maximum in any case of fraud, whether on the Net or not.
So you shouldn't let fears of cyberpiracy stop you from shopping on the Web. Your chances of getting ripped off are slim -- and the odds of having to reimburse the card company even slimmer.