Price alteration: the latest crisis for online shopping

May 2001 Information Security

e-commerce has received a body blow with the revelation that any user with a browser can alter prices of goods online and effectively get them for a steal.

Ian Melamed, Chief Technology Officer of Satellitesafe, says online theft occurs broadly across the world, as a consequence of a well known vulnerability in online shopping applications. The flaw allows a user to change the price of goods displayed online, and then to order the goods at the altered price - a widespread practice tantamount to theft. "It could not be simpler," says Melamed. "All you need do is choose a product from an online catalogue.

Then, after receiving pricing information, use your PC browser's 'edit page' to display the HTML code. Save the page to your PC, change the price and submit it to the online shopping site by clicking your browser's 'publish' key. You can order a R10 000 PC for R1, for instance. It will not work on every site, but it works often enough to make electronic price tag alteration a widespread practice." Just how widespread is reflected in the fact that 11% of all online transactions are fraudulent, according to the Internet Fraud Council; and a third of all US and 40% of UK e-commerce sites are susceptible to the flaw.

The flaw has occurred, says Melamed, because e-businesses have focused so heavily on securing the connection between the buyer and seller that they have not appropriately secured their back-end systems. "The majority of the e-business information security budget is spent on ensuring the integrity of the buyer-seller link. However, it has been shown time and again that the biggest and most consistent vulnerability lies at the seller's end. There have been many reports of user lists being stolen, databases being hacked, and websites defaced. Management tends to operate on the basis that what is internal is secure, especially when it is behind a firewall.

"The solution," adds Melamed, "has to be encrypted pricing models, which are only decrypted when accessed properly. All price changes must then go through a controlled change process, with one person submitting changes, and another authenticating them. Anything less will ensure online shopping remains a risky venture."

For more details contact Ian Melamed, Satellitesafe, on tel: (011) 804 6115, e-mail:

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