March 17, 2010 | The New York Times

Last year, 92 million people bought things online using credit cards, debit cards and services like PayPal and Google Checkout. Millions of others paid bills and wired money electronically from bank accounts with just a few clicks.

Despite the apparent popularity of all these services, they still cause nagging anxiety for many of us.

We wonder, how secure are these payment systems? Will I be out the money if someone steals my account numbers and goes on a wild shopping spree or bleeds my savings dry?

Deciding which online payment method to use would seem to be a simple matter of picking whichever offers higher security. But the wise consumer also weighs the legal protections in the case of theft: the best security and the lowest liability don’t necessarily go together.

Here’s the lowdown on the risks associated with the most popular ways to pay online:

CREDIT CARDS After you hear some of the horror stories, using a credit card online may seem as risky as Russian roulette. Crooks can and frequently do capture card numbers by sneaking malware onto home computers or by tricking people into revealing numbers in “phishing” schemes in which people unwittingly type in the numbers on fake sites. Some thieves hack shopping sites.

There are a few precautions everyone should take. First, look for signs of quality security at sites you use, like logos, or seals, from security providers like VeriSign and McAfee, said Aleksandr Yampolskiy, director of security at the luxury shopping site Gilt Groupe. To check that a seal is legitimate, click on it to make sure it takes you to the verification page of the security service.

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