Seeking first-hand experience of electronic commerce, I went to the Reuters Money Net home page at http://www . moneynet.com to buy a research report on Apple Computer. Reuters has linked its page to the First Virtual electronic payment system, so a click on the 'join' button got me through to the First Virtual application form. First Virtual operates a credit card clearing system where users with personal identification numbers (PINs) can use their card accounts over the Internet without entering their card numbers. Problem number one: The on-line application form is designed for people with addresses that include a state and post code (Hong Kong addresses do not) and it will not accept blank fields. I tried ignoring the warnings but got around it by entering XXXX as my post code and Hong Kong as my state. A few hours later, First Virtual e-mailed me an account application number and instructions on how to send my credit card details. Callers from the United States use an 800 number, callers from outside use a 770 number. After getting through to the automatic dial-in service, my call went like this: FV electronic voice: 'Welcome to First Virtual's Internet Banking service. Dial '1' to continue.' I dialled 1. FV voice said: 'Thank you, goodbye.' I tried again twice and eventually managed to proceed to the point where I was asked to key in my credit card number. I tried three times but there was no way the voice was going to accept my Hongkong Bank Visa card number. Apparently other people have had problems using the automatic service. In its e-mail message, First Virtual said: 'We have observed that some customers have difficulty interacting with our telephone response unit. If you are unable to complete the telephone-based portion of the application, you may send us your credit card information by fax.' The fax number was chronically busy at first but I got through to it the next day. First Virtual has based its electronic commerce payments system on the credit card. Without one, you cannot use the system. It acts as a kind of on-line clearing house for credit card transactions, with deals struck on-line through participating merchants going through its system. It gets around security problems by ensuring no credit card details are passed over the Internet, receiving these from customers only over the phone or fax system. Each customer receives a unique PIN via e-mail and uses it each time they make a transaction. After sending the fax (First Virtual promises a quick response if you send the fax on a business day), I received the following e-mail from First Virtual: 'The account for Christopher Derrick CHAPEL is now activated for buying. Your Virtual PIN (your account identifier) is: XXXXXXXXXX. You are now ready to buy over the Internet!' Armed with my new PIN, I went back to the Reuters page to order the research report on Apple Computer, but I was asked for my First Virtual account number. This threw me and I had to go back to my original e-mail from First Virtual to discover that I had not been given an account number at all, just the Virtual PIN. This is all you need to operate your account. I keyed the PIN into the Reuters order form and the Apple Computer report came down the line a few minutes later. The report cost US$4.95 and applying for the First Virtual account cost $2. Combined with the cost of sending the fax and the time spent on-line, I estimate the whole experience cost less than $10, and I had joined the wonderful world of electronic commerce on the Internet. The report, by Reality On-line and McGraw-Hill, was as fresh as could be, last updated on the day I received it. It appeared to be a comprehensive rundown of Apple, complete with financial statistics and news reports. A few hours after receiving the report, First Virtual sent me an e-mail confirming the purchase. For others seeking to open a First Virtual account, I would advise you to keep copies of the various codes and numbers assigned as you never know when you might be asked for them. Also, although joining costs are low, having an on-line commerce account will almost certainly expand one's spending habits. And because the account is linked to your credit card, you will not have any control over the repayment as you would with most other business expenses.