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U.S. to Keep Separate Tabs on Internet Sales
By Peter Ramjug  Reuters
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Commerce Department said on Friday it will begin publishing annual online retail sales figures for the first time, reflecting the Internet's significant impact on the retail industry.

"Our Census Bureau will begin to track e-commerce separately in our annual retail survey," a major indicator of the nation's economic health, Commerce Secretary William Daley said at a news conference.

Up until now Internet shopping figures have been lumped together with catalogue sales.

"It's an acknowledgment that this is worthy of separating out from just general catalogue sales numbers. (The Internet) has changed the buying patterns of people and we think it would be a wise thing to do," Daley added.

The figures will be done on an annual basis and the numbers for 1998 and 1999 will be available around the summer of 2000.

Internet shopping averaged $3 billion in sales in 1997, tripled to $9 billion in sales last year and is expected to reach some $30 billion by next year, Daley, citing statistics by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Forrester Research and other firms, said.

The leap from 1997 to 1998 represented less than 1 percent of total retail sales "but can you imagine if the rest of the economy tripled every year?" he asked.

With the number of retailers going online to sell their wares growing each year, and consumers enjoying the benefits of shopping anytime and anywhere, Daley said a number of issues have been raised about privacy and consumer protection.

Daley, flanked by Chairman Robert Pitofsky of the Federal Trade Commission, called on Web retailers to police themselves and laid out six things that online buyers should look out for before purchasing anything.

They included using a credit card, keeping your password private and checking to see if the company you're buying from has a policy about how it uses personal data.

Pitofsky said his agency, which enforces consumer protection laws, has brought 58 enforcement cases in the last 14 months and predicted that number will rise. A number of staff from his agency have been reassigned from other projects and are now patrolling the Internet for potential fraud.

"I think it's very, very important that we establish a rule of law with respect to purchases on the Internet," he said.

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