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7/20/2005
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Opinion: If You Promise Customers Privacy, Deliver!

If you promise customers their information is secure, you have to be ready to back it up. If you don't, you risk gaining their ire--and losing their business.

If you're wondering whether recent high-profile losses of customer data--not to mention under-the-counter sales of private customer information--are affecting end-user behavior, here's the answer: Yes. According to two new industry reports, consumers are starting to figure out that many online privacy policies marked "To Serve Customers" are actually cookbooks--and the customers are the entree. And those customers are starting to leave the kitchen.

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Don't believe it? The Conference Board, a consumer researcher, recently published the latest version of its Consumer Internet Barometer--a periodic study of online user behavior--and the results leave a bad taste in the mouth. In fact, 41 percent of consumers say they are buying less online because of privacy concerns, and 13 percent say they or a member of their household have been victims of identity theft. More than half of the respondents are more concerned about their online privacy than they were a year ago. And though much of their concern is attributable to data loss by large financial institutions such as Citibank and Bank of America, the erosion of confidence is bound to affect online sales for e-retailers and other companies that do business online.

The good news is that not all users are ready to give up. A study from the Pew Research Center indicates that users are not just changing what they do; they are becoming more selective and savvy in the process. For example, 81 percent of users have stopped opening e-mail attachments from unknown sources; 48 percent have stopped visiting Web sites they suspect may download spyware or adware. The study demonstrates that users still want to use the Web--but only if they can do it securely.

So what can you do to convince customers and partners your Web site is safe? What technologies can you implement to reassure users they won't be giving up their privacy with every online purchase? Well, this problem can't be solved by deploying new security tools, but only by enforcing good old-fashioned security and privacy policies and practices for building customer trust.

To regain customer confidence, companies must be honest and consistent. If your privacy policy is 20 pages long and includes backward phrasing and legalspeak to cover the fact that you're selling customer names to anyone with a dollar, you're not helping your company or e-commerce in general. You must keep private information private. State your policies clearly, simply and understandably, and then stick to them.

SITES TO SEE

Identity theft and online security worries are causing changes in how people use the Internet

Spyware: The threat of unwanted software programs is changing the way people use the Internet

Radio personality Clark Howard's guide to avoiding identity theft

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