After watching warily from the sidelines, Visa USA is preparing a major push to convince consumers that using their Visa cards to shop on the Internet is safe.
That switch comes after the U.S. arm of the global credit card giant earlier this year quietly stopped advising cardholders--via its Web site--not to use Visa cards on the Net.
Visa had told its customers to wait until the Secure Electronic Transactions (SET) protocol is adopted before embracing e-commerce.
Visa officials say the new campaign doesn't conflict with its continuing push for SET, which has seen little uptake in the United States. SET is backed by Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and others as a method for secure credit card purchases over the Internet.
"SET is as much a part of our strategy today as it has ever been," said Joe Vause, vice president of electronic commerce for Visa USA. But now Visa, at least in the United States, is envisioning a "migratory path" in which it will move consumers, merchants, and banks first to do Internet commerce, then to do SET-based transactions.
"A number of security tools can be used in today's environment that we are emphasizing," Vause said, adding that Visa is comfortable with credit card purchases using the more common Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security. "Ultimately, [however], SET is where we believe we need to be."
The stakes are high for Visa: A recent Jupiter Communications report on online shopping predicted that 99 percent of online purchases would be made with credit cards through 2002. Visa now has 51 percent market share among online purchases, Jupiter estimated.
Many see Visa rival MasterCard as more aggressive in promoting credit card Purchases online. MasterCard has run TV ads promoting online shopping and will run more before the end of the year, something Visa hasn't done but will start doing before Christmas. MasterCard also boosts shopping on partner Excite's site, as well as in print ads in USA Today.
Visa has had a strong relationship with Yahoo, and it has advertised aggressively on the Net. It is among the Net's top-ten advertising spenders for non-computer advertisers.
Visa now will ramp up the following: its promotion of online shopping with TV and print ads; an online guide for safe shopping online; a charitable giving campaign to be rolled out next week; and the release of a new shopper survey.
Among the most important of Visa's security measures: cardholders who report a questionable online purchase within 48 hours of learning about it now are not liable for any part of the charge. After two days, cardholder liability is limited to $50, as it is in the offline world.
Another major online merchant that offers a similar guarantee, Disney, applauds Visa's new TV ads promoting Net shopping.
"We have encouraged Visa, MasterCard, and American Express to do that," said Russ Gillam, vice president of e-commerce for Disney's Buena Vista Internet Group. "We would love to have them say, 'Hey, the Internet is safe--use your card there.'"
Also on the security front, Visa specifically advises cardholders not to send card numbers via email. It urges users to check their browser for the lock symbol, which ensures that the connection has been secured using SSL, before sending payment information.
Visa's consumer education campaign includes advice to shop with trusted merchants; to learn about delivery and return charges; to check privacy statements; to use the Net to research purchases, and to keep a record of any transactions.
The company's cautious encouragement of online credit card use in part reflects bureaucratic divisions within its organization.
Visa International has driven the SET standard, which has found somewhat broader but still anemic adoption in Europe and Asia. Visa USA, which now is prepared to promote Internet shopping, is responsible for its geographic area, and U.S. Internet use is higher than in other regions.
The company remains steadfastly committed to SET. A flurry of recent messages on a SET developers mailing list questioned the commitments of MasterCard and Visa, provoking this response from key SET technical architects at both associations:
"Visa and MasterCard have not scaled down, backed off, or de-emphasized in any way their support and advancement of the SET protocol. In fact, quite the opposite is true," Visa's James Trovato and MasterCard's Joe Haspiel wrote, recounting the company's progress since the 1.0 version of the specification was published in May 1997. "SET is very much alive, and growing more and more each day."