Web Users Increasingly Wary

The prospect of identity theft has led the majority of online users--53 percent--to stop giving out personal information online, according to a study released Wednesday by Consumer Reports WebWatch.

Additionally, 30 percent of consumers report reducing their overall use of the Web, while 25 percent say they no longer make online purchases, according to WebWatch. The report, "Leap of Faith: Using the Internet Despite the Dangers," was based on a survey of 1,501 online adults, conducted earlier this year.

Even those who continued to shop online reported taking precautions. Fifty-four percent of online shoppers said they now are more likely to read a site's privacy policy or user agreement than in the past--while 29 percent say they shop online less frequently than before.

The results show a growing concern about identity theft, said Beau Brendler, director of WebWatch. "There's been a pretty steady drumbeat over the last three years about it," he said. In addition, the wave of headlines about security breaches at databases has led consumers to rethink how to best protect their personal data, he said.

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A previous study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, released in July, also revealed that consumers had changed their online behavior, partly because of security concerns. The Pew study, "Spyware," concluded that fears of spyware and adware had driven 48 percent of Web users to stop visiting certain Web sites.

The consumer concern isn't surprising, given the recent public security breaches at companies like ChoicePoint and Lexis Nexis, said Alan Chappel of the consulting and research firm Chappel & Associates. "Consumers are continuing to become much more squeamish," Chappel said. He added that studies such as WebWatch's show that marketers need to both work within their organizations to make sure data is secure, and better explain to consumers how their data will be used.

Consumer Reports also examined consumers' views on a variety of Web sites, including news publications and blogs. One of the key findings was that consumers increasingly turn to the Web for news. Eleven percent of respondents said they receive most of their news from the Internet--up from 5 percent in 2002. At the same time, the proportion of consumers who receive most of their news from TV declined from 67 percent in 2002 to 61 percent this year.

Respondents between the ages of 18 and 40 were especially likely to read news on the Web--with 19 percent stating they get most of their news online, compared to 8 percent of those between the ages of 41 and 59 and 1 percent of those age 60 and older.

TV was the medium of choice for consumers age 60 and over--with 70 percent of that group saying they got most news via television, compared to 62 percent of those in the 41- to-59-year-old bracket, and 55 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 40.

When it came to blogs, more than one in four respondents--27 percent--said they visited a blog in the last several months; a much smaller proportion--12 percent--said they believe that blogs are accurate most of the time.

The WebWatch study also found that most consumers are ill-informed about the workings of paid search. Just 44 percent of respondents said they had heard or read about paid search. Still, that's more than in 2002, when only 39 percent of respondents had heard of companies paying to be included in search engines' results pages.

At the same time, consumers appeared to be skeptical that search engines returned the most relevant results, with many respondents saying they assumed that marketers paid for prominence in the listings.

When asked to choose whether search engines showed mostly the most relevant results, or showed mostly results for companies that have paid to be listed prominently, 50 percent of respondents said they thought results were driven by payments. Just 31 percent answered that search engines mainly showed the most relevant results for a search, while 14 percent didn't know, 3 percent thought search engines did both functions, and 2 percent said search engines didn't do either. Those answers, said Brendler, "probably reflect a general skepticism on the part of consumers."

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