ID Theft Threats Keep Web Users Away

New research released by Consumer Reports WebWatch (search) finds that U.S. Internet users are cutting back on the hours they spend online, shunning e-commerce and refusing to give out personal information as a result of the rising tide of Web-based crimes related to identity theft.

According to the WebWatch report, released Wednesday, 80 percent of all American Web surfers are at least somewhat concerned about the threat of identity theft posed by engaging in online activities.

As a result of those concerns, at least 30 percent of the 1,500 people interviewed for the survey said they have reduced the amount of time they access the Internet.

In addition to going online less frequently, 53 percent of the respondents told WebWatch that fears of ID theft (search) have stopped them from giving out their personal information to Web sites and online marketers, while 25 percent said they are no longer purchasing items from e-commerce sites.

In a nod to related information security concerns, some 54 percent of the respondents who still buy items online said they now read Web sites' privacy policies before doing business with a company, and 29 percent said they have merely cut down on the amount of Web shopping they engage in.

New York-based WebWatch, a grant-funded project of the nonprofit Consumers Union (search), said that consumers have dramatically shifted their views of online activity over the last several years, becoming far more conservative about what constitutes safe online behavior.

Compared to the group's 2002 study on the same topic, researchers said that people are placing far more importance on issues of security and privacy when choosing which sites they visit or do business with.

In the 2005 report, 88 percent of survey respondents said that a site's ability to keep personal information secure was "very important" in deciding which sites to frequent, while 81 percent said that having trust that information on a site is accurately presented is a major determining factor.

While 48 percent of respondents said that knowing exactly who owns a Web site is an important factor in their usage, 76 percent said it was vital to be able to identify where the information on a site is coming from.

Officials with the research outfit claim that recommendations to consumers from groups like WebWatch have contributed to the growing scrutiny of sites, which it views as a positive development.

"We're gratified that over time, our guidelines for improving Web site credibility, and the general concerns of U.S. Internet users, remain connected," said Beau Brendler, director of WebWatch, in the report. "The types of qualities users expect from credible Web sites are the same qualities found in [our] guidelines."

Among the other findings of the study was indication that Americans are increasingly turning to the Web to get their news, with the percentage of adults reporting that they get the bulk their coverage from the Internet doubling to 11 percent, compared to only 5 percent in 2002.

Some 69 percent of those surveyed said that sites that maintain a clear distinction between advertising and news content are more reliable, with 31 percent agreeing that it is very important for news sites to reveal the financial relationships they maintain with other businesses.

While Weblogs, or blogs, have caused a major upheaval in the news business as companies look at ways to keep up with citizen reporters, those surveyed by WebWatch were clearly less enthralled with the movement, with 57 percent distrusting blog-generated news, 21 percent saying that blogs are usually incorrect, and only 12 percent expressing a belief that the online journals are accurate most of the time.

Roughly 27 percent of those interviewed said they had visited a blog in the past several months.

Americans are also increasingly skeptical regarding images they find on the Web, with 47 percent reporting that they have viewed what they believed to be manipulated pictures online. Despite that trend, 67 percent said they trust online news sites to use genuine photographs.

In relation to children's Web usage, opinions remain largely negative, with 86 percent of those surveyed identifying adults' continued pursuit of kids in chat rooms as a serious problem on the Internet today, with 61 percent labeling violent online games as a major issue. Some 82 percent believe it is too easy for minors to view sexually explicit content.

Among the few bright spots revealed by the research was growing trust in auction and financial services sites, despite the growth of online phishing schemes which have largely spoofed such pages in the name of committing identity theft.

WebWatch said that 61 percent of its respondents feel auction sites are safe, with 68 percent confident in their use of online banking sites, and 55 percent comfortable enough to use online bill payment systems.

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