American Express Travel Related Services Co. said it has begun taking card authorization inquiries and billings from merchants via the Internet.

American Express payments to Internet merchants previously had to be authorized by telephone. Now they can be effected during a single Internet connection, thanks to what American Express calls its SSL Gateway.

SSL refers to Secure Sockets Layer, the security protocol that includes data encryption to prevent fraud and theft.

David Bauman, senior vice president of interactive services, said the method is "a perfect example of how the Internet can serve as a powerful cost-cutting tool for businesses, and how American Express can help merchants do more."

Internet Shopping Network, a computer retailing subsidiary of the television channel Home Shopping Network, was the first to take advantage of the SSL Gateway.

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