--Alan Zisman

Touchlink finance system offers peace of mind
for customers and retailers nervous of the Net - March 17 1998

Web sites can produce impressive online sales: Microsoft's Expedia virtual travel agency claims sales of $140 million a year. That figure is dwarfed by computer manufacturer Dell, with a site bringing in $3 million in sales each day. (Locally, check out online computer store MegaDepot:

Despite these impressive figures, only a fraction of the increasing numbers of people using the Net are prepared to make purchases online. The fall AC Nielsen Canadian Internet Survey, for example, claimed that 31 per cent of adult Canadians said they currently use the Internet, with 15 per cent using the Internet on a daily basis. But only 13 per cent had made a purchase on the Net, while 84 per cent reported being concerned about sending their credit card number over the Internet.

Because of this, for many businesses the promise of retail sales via the World Wide Web has been put on hold until consumers become less wary of spending money over the Net.

Although we've discussed in this column how credit card transactions on the Web are no more dangerous than paying with plastic for a restaurant meal, the reality is that, for many potential customers, electronic commerce has to be more secure than the face-to-face equivalent before they'll risk online purchases.

The banks and credit card companies have been pushing for standards that would set the stage for an explosion in safe and reliable Internet commerce, and their efforts may be bearing fruit. For example, the Royal Bank and Visa are two of the partners promoting the Touchlink Secure Electronic Web Payment System.

It has many similarities to the familiar electronic point-of-sale system, except that it transmits information across the Internet, with information being shared between the customer's computer, a retailer's secure Web server and an accredited Touchlink Gateway server. When the customer enters a credit card number, the information is relayed to the Touchlink server, which verifies the transaction and credits the retailer -- all within a few seconds.

For consumers, the security of the system is indicated by their browser. Depending on what version they're using, Netscape browsers will show a tiny broken key or an open lock icon on the bottom of the screen when browsing an insecure site. When the consumer connects to a site using Secure Socket Layer technology, the lock closes. (Internet Explorer users won't see an indication of insecure sites, but should see a similarly locked icon when on secure sites.)

The system provides security for consumers on several levels. Information leaving the customer's computer is encrypted, making it useless if intercepted. Credit card numbers go to the Touchlink server, not to the retailer. And to make use of the system, retailers have to apply for certification from Touchlink, ensuring potential customers that they are legitimately in business -- a condition that should help overcome the possibility that "On the Internet, nobody needs to know you're a dog."

Retailers can use this system to decrease cost. It is completely automated, to be open for business seven days a week, 24 hours a day. As with other credit card transactions, there are no NSF cheques or invoicing problems. And it can be integrated with existing ac-
counting and shipping systems, so data won't need to be reentered. A U.S. dollar account can be created, allowing American customers to be charged in US$ without conversion charges on their credit cards, and letting merchants post prices in U.S. dollars with less regard for currency fluctuations.

The system currently accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Enroute credit cards. Cost to the merchant includes a $500 setup fee and a monthly charge of $50, which covers the first 100 transactions. Additional transactions are billed at 50 cents each. Your business will need to have an established inventory management or shopping cart system to let customers make purchases online.

As well, retailers hoping to use the Touchlink system need a Royal Bank Visa merchant account and may need to post a secure bond with the bank as a guarantee against chargebacks. This will let you get a digital certificate and Electronic Commerce Registration number as an online business. Call the Royal's Debra Fahr (665-8556) for details.

Vancouver-based Strategic Profits Inc. offers a Web site labelled "Turnkey E-Commerce Business Solutions" at info@forprofits.
where you can test the payment server system, making a token $0.01 online purchase, and placing it on your credit card.

Some stores will be more appropriate for online business than others. I know I still want to handle the avocados to get a couple that are just right for my guacamole. For some purchases, even secure online equivalents won't work.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan