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Businesses put to test

As online commerce becomes increasingly popular, another company launches a certification program to ensure that Web sites are safe.

Online businesses can try to appease skeptical consumers with a new certification program announced today by Background Research International.

As online commerce becomes increasingly popular, Netizens are looking for ways to ensure that the Web site where they do their shopping is safe. Businesses are also looking for ways to make their customers feel as secure online as they do off.

BRI is just one business that is trying to provide that sense of security. The company employs private investigators who confirm the legitimacy of businesses and verify the owner's identification, licenses, and length of operation.

The company also determines whether businesses have two trade references and investigate to see if they have liens or court judgments against them. If a business checks out, it's given a certificate and a stamp of approval for its Web site.

"We're not saying if a company puts out a good product or service," said Frank Dillon, director of the company and a former commander of the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations. "We're saying that they have a legitimate legal status."

BRI's certificate costs $150 and can be ordered online, although it does have to be renewed annually. Its seal is not encrypted, but the company said it will prosecute copyright violators.

Small businesses BRI has approved include ConsultLink, Virginia Internet Service, and Baby Bag Online, which publishes an electronic parenting magazine.

"We work with a lot doctors offices, medical personal, the March of Dimes, Red Cross, and businesses that cater to parents of prenatal to preschool-aged children," said Andrea Huber, president of Baby Bag, which she established in 1994. "The certificate adds credibility so we don't appear to be a fly-by-night place. It says we've been researched and we're not a scam."

And the credibility issue goes both ways. Before she contacted BRI, Huber did some checking of her own.

"I looked into BRI's background and affiliations," she said. "They seemed to have a good reputation for other investigative work that they had done."

The launch of the site comes three months before the Better Business Bureau's service BBBOnline hits the market. To certify an online business, BBBOnline visits the company to verify existence, checks the nature of the business, rates its consumer-complaint response record, and requires businesses to be one-year old to receive the BBBOnline encrypted seal of approval.

"Our program permits businesses who agree to adhere to ethical standards to demonstrate that to consumers," said Holly Cherico, director of communication for BBBOnline. "It seems that BRI is identifying a business's legitimate legal presence. We're going to identify businesses that have made an ethical commitment."

BBBOnline will go live in March and is endorsed by national companies such as AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, and Netscape Communications.

Commissioner Christine Varney of the Federal Trade Commission, who endorsed BBBOnline, has not reviewed BRI but said, "It's a good thing if anybody--whether it is a public service or nonprofit--can help consumers gain confidence as they enter into transactions on the Internet."