US government to take closer look at online spending

The US Commerce Department will begin publishing figures that show the impact of online shopping on retail activity, which is considered a key indicator of the nation's ecomomic health. Commerce Secretary William Daley and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Robert Pitofsky also say the boom in online commercial activity makes it more important than ever to protect the interests of Internet shoppers.

The US Commerce Department will begin publishing figures that show the impact of online shopping on retail activity, which is considered a key indicator of the nation's ecomomic health.

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Commerce Secretary William Daley and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Robert Pitofsky also said the boom in online commercial activity makes it more important than ever to protect the interests of Internet shoppers.

Until now the Commerce Department has lumped online shopping figures together with catalog sales in its overall retail sales numbers. New figures that break out Internet sales as a separate entity will be available by the middle of next year for 1998 and 1999, Daley said.

Consumers in the US spent about $US9 billion online last year, while the proportion of retailers selling goods on the Internet tripled in a single year, from 12% in 1997 to 39% in 1998, according to Commerce Department estimates.

While online spending represents only a small fraction of retail spending it is climbing fast, and expected to reach $30 billion [B] by 2000, Daley said.

Daley and FTC Chairman Pitofsky called on busineses to redouble their efforts to protect the privacy of consumers who shop online.

"Chairman Pitofsky and I have asked businesses to step up to the plate on this issue and regulate themselves -- it has taken some prodding," Daley said in a statement.

Businesses have taken some steps to protect consumer interests, he said. More than 80 businesses have joined the Online Privacy Alliance, whose members agree to adhere to principles about how they use information gathered from consumers, such as email addreses and credit card numbers.

Meanwhile the Better Business Bureau in March plans to launch a program that will award a seal of approval to businesses that meet certain consumer-protection standards.

Pitofsky offered the following advice to online shoppers:

-- Look for a privacy policy . The company should tell a consumer what information it collects, how it uses it and whether or not it shares the information with anyone else;

-- Keep personal information private. Only give out personal information if you know who is collecting it,and why and how it will be used;

-- Keep passwords private;

-- Pay by credit card, and if you don't get the merchandise, challenge the charges with the credit card issuer;

-- Check out delivery and return policies.

The U.S. Commerce Department is on the Web at http://www.commerce.gov/. The FTC is on the Web at http://www.ftc.gov/.

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