Internet-related crime is a large and growing problem. More than a third of the 218,000 fraud complaints the Federal Trade Commission received in 2002 were Web-related.
In October, the FBI implemented Operation Cyber Sweep, a coordinated nationwide enforcement operation designed to crack down on the leading types of online economic crime. By November, it announced the arrests or convictions of more than 125 people. Investigators discovered more than 125,000 victims, with estimated losses totaling more than $100 million. (See www.fbi.gov/cyber/cysweep/cysweep1.htm for more information.)
That may heighten concerns among those who provide personal financial data to travel websites, which racked up $27 billion in sales in the first three quarters of 2003. Consumers may worry if the site is secure, or if there has been a breach of security, but experts say those may be unfounded worries.
After booking a vacation on Orbitz in October, Libby Kozaczek of Santa Monica said she began receiving about 150 spam e-mails a day.
Orbitz acknowledged the problem but said the data were safe. "Someone essentially stole our e-mail list and sold it to spammers," said Carol Jouzaitis, vice president of corporate communications for Orbitz. "It is premature to comment on the investigation ... but no one hacked Orbitz's system."
Though the spam was troublesome, Kozaczek's bigger concern was the integrity of her credit card and other personal data. "If hackers can so easily obtain e-mail addresses, what other personal information has Orbitz given out?" she asked in an e-mail to The Times.
But Jouzaitis said that worry was unfounded. "There is no evidence that customer information beyond e-mail addresses was affected," she said.
Internet security consultant John Levine, author of "The Internet for Dummies" and the forthcoming "Fighting Spam for Dummies," due out this month, thinks the concerns are misplaced. "Everybody is very worried about data in transit, and it doesn't happen. You hand your credit card to a waiter and he walks away, and God knows what he does with it. That's much more dangerous than what happens online."
Sensitive customer data are secure online because of sophisticated firewall and encryption technology, he said. The larger online companies also monitor security carefully, he said.
But e-mail is different.
"E-mail goes places where your personal and financial data wouldn't," he said. So you may get spammed, but financially you probably won't get scammed.
Here are some ways online consumers can mitigate their risks:
* Look on websites certified by companies such as TRUSTe, an independent, nonprofit initiative dedicated to enabling individuals and organizations to establish trusting relationships based on respect for personal identity and information (www.truste.org), or Verisign's Secure Site Program, which enables you to learn more about websites you visit before you submit any confidential information (www.verisign.com). The major travel websites participate in such programs and usually have a logo you can click on for verification.
* To find warnings about known e-mail and Internet scams, check the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, www.ifccfbi.gov, the official Internet fraud website for the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. If you think you are a victim of Internet fraud, you can complete the site's online complaint form.
James Gilden can be contacted at www.theinternettraveler.com.