Joe Lopez will never forget the day he checked his Bank of America account online and realized that more than $90,000 had vanished.
Months before, the Miami business owner had stopped making weekly visits to his local branch, opting instead to conduct his financial transactions entirely over the Internet.
"I absolutely thought it was safe," Lopez said. "And it was convenient."
What he didn't realize were the risks. A malicious virus had infected his computer and, in a matter of minutes, captured his user name and password -- allowing a hacker to transfer $90,348 to a rogue overseas account.
Lopez got most of his money back months later, after a federal investigation and, eventually, a lawsuit. But his experience taught him the hard way, he says, what many experts have concluded: "Online banking is a danger."
Since its debut just a decade ago, online banking has become one of the fastest-growing Internet activities. Roughly 43% of people who use the Internet, or about 63 million Americans, do some banking there, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project -- even more than make travel reservations online.
But that growing popularity has also brought increasing anxiety over whether something as private and personal as a bank account can be fully protected in the relatively unregulated and unpoliced world of the Internet.
"It's pretty hard not to do online banking because it is so convenient, and people want convenience," said Atul Prakash, a University of Michigan researcher who conducted a study on the risks of Internet banking. "Nevertheless, there are reasons to worry."
Mia Jozwick, a student at Wagner College in New York City, was duped by a “phishing” e-mail made to look like a message from her bank. Thinking it was an important financial notification, Jozwick responded by firing off her user name and password; she learned it was a scam only after someone emptied her account.'My account was negative $1,000'
To make matters worse: Thieves were also able to steal her identity, because her password was her Social Security number. It took her a year and help from Identity Theft 911, a service agency, to unravel the mess she found herself in.
"It was a nightmare," she said.
How the scams work
Since the birth of electronic commerce, financial institutions have stepped up online security measures to try to make the process less vulnerable to attacks.