When it comes to using credit cards online, many Internet businesses say their biggest fear is fear itself.
Citing consumer concerns about the security of credit-card numbers as an impediment to online commerce, two industry powerhouses have introduced guarantees in an effort to overcome what they call unwarranted anxieties.
AT&T Corp. said Tuesday that it would indemnify holders of its own credit card against fraud when they use AT&T security software to shop at World Wide Web sites that AT&T maintains for business clients. That means AT&T would assume responsibility for the customer's usual $50 deductible.
America Online Inc. said last month that it would assume responsibility for the deductible when subscribers shop at online retailers that meet its customer-service standards. That would include about 50 of the more than 250 merchants online with AOL, which only recently began the evaluation process, said Michael Minigan, vice president of marketing for AOL's interactive-marketing unit.
"We think that this is a way to jump-start the industry for both businesses and consumers," said Kathleen Earley, vice president of AT&T's EasyCommerce Services for businesses.
Through the power of the AT&T name and the security guarantee, "we can help customers overcome any concerns that they may have," Ms. Earley said.
AT&T introduced a different guarantee in March, promising that holders of its Universal Card who also use AT&T as their onramp to the Internet would not be held liable if their credit cards were compromised anywhere in cyberspace.
AT&T said it didn't think the guarantee would cost it much money because the risk of a security breach is so small.
Many analysts and retailers agree that the burgeoning business of electronic commerce is battling a perception problem.Concerns about hackers stealing credit-card numbers online have spawned a new industry of companies dedicated to making online transactions secure. through the use of encryption.
"There's still a reluctance to use credit cards online," said David Simons, managing director of Digital Video Investments, which studies the Internet for institutional investors.
"It's irrational because there's probably a greater chance of theft or fraud by giving your credit card out to an individual on an 800 number or ... the old-fashioned way, over the counter."
"This is strictly a perception issue," said Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon.Com, an Internet-based bookstore that handles thousands of sales a day.
"It's so much easier to go through a trash can or dumpster and get credit-card numbers than it is to break the encryption schemes that are used on the Internet."
Still, Mr. Bezos said, there is evidence that perceptions are changing. When Amazon.Com opened for business 15 months ago, about half of its customers opted to provide their credit-card numbers over the phone instead of over the Internet. Now, 85 percent complete the transactions online, he said.