Searching for Online Security

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If you are reading this, you must be one of the 200 million-odd Americans who use the Internet. But no matter how comfortable you are navigating the web—you point, you click, you forward fascinating TIME stories to friends—there's a good chance you don't shop online.

According to a recent survey by the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, an industry advocacy group, 48% of Internet users avoid making purchases online because they are nervous their financial information will be stolen. And with good reason—unauthorized use of online accounts has become the fastest-growing fraud in the United States, according to Gartner. More than $11.7 billion was lost to fraud among online adults in the year ending April 2004, the research firm says, and it estimates that by the end of 2006, 75 percent of the data stolen to commit illegal checking-account transfers and credit-card purchases will be taken from the Internet.

That may change with the launch today of TrustWatch Search, the first search engine to help Internet users fight fraud, identity theft and other online scams. The free service looks and works like a regular search engine. Say you want to buy a digital camera. You type "digital camera" into the box and get back the usual page with little blue links to results. But in real time, TrustWatch Search also runs a complex algorithm on each and every search result, evaluating whether that site can be trusted. Next to each link is a symbol. Red means the site is a known scam, and should be avoided. Yellow means there is not enough information available on the site's trustworthiness—proceed with caution, and consider calling first. A green site has been verified and can be trusted.

Consumers who want more information can also click on a site report, which tells them how long the site has been in business, its traffic ranking, store ratings, how many people link to the site, and more. TrustWatch also offers users a toolbar, launched last fall, which sits on a web browser and alerts Internet users whenever they enter an untrustworthy site. This can be particularly useful when dealing with suspected "phishing" emails, which ask the recipient to click through to a Web site and enter financial information.

GeoTrust, which owns TrustWatch, secures 30% of the world's online credit card transactions and is the second largest provider of digital certificates, a kind of electronic passport that confirms the identity of a person or business involved in an online transaction. The company will make some money from its search site by splitting advertising revenue with Ask Jeeves, which powers the engine's results and also delivers sponsored results on the right of the results page (which are not evaluated for security). But the biggest part of GeoTrust's business model banks on "yellow" retailers wanting to get the green light, and paying an average of $150 a year to be assessed and verified. "A lot of merchants are not going to want to show up yellow, so they will go and get verified," says GeoTrust CEO Neal Creighton. GeoTrust will be happy to oblige.