When you're selling things, you need people to be able to pay you. Sure, they could send you cheques in the post, but that's not really convenient or scalable, is it? No, to do business on the web, you need to be able to accept card payments electronically and, luckily for you, it's never been easier. Here's the whole process, in five simple steps.

Step 1: Choose a Payment Service.

While you could get a merchant account and do your own card processing, it isn't usually worth it, unless you do an awful lot of transactions. For most business, third-party payment services are a better solution, and there are lots of services out there that let you accept card payments for a small fee.

When you choose a payment service, then, the main things you want to consider are the prices, and whether your customers will trust it. You used to need to consider which services your customers would have accounts with, but as most services now let you accept payments from people who don't have accounts with them that's not much of an issue any more.

Right now, the biggest general payment player is PayPal, and they're worth considering first, but you should be aware that many businesses have had issues with PayPal freezing their accounts and being slow to respond (see www.nopaypal.com for more). StormPay (www.stormpay.com) is a decent general-purpose PayPal alternative, and useful to keep around as a backup. You might also like to check out more specific services, such as AuctionCheckout (if you're taking payments for auction items) or ClickBank (non-physical products only, popular for ebook sales).

Step 2: Create an Account.

The next step is to create an account at your chosen online payment provider. This will require you to give out either your personal name and address or a business name and address. Depending on who you're registering with, you may also need to give out credit card or bank details. It almost goes without saying that you shouldn't give these details out to anyone you're not sure of be suspicious of payment services that you've found with a search but never actually seen in use.

Step 3: Get Verified.

Before you can receive any significant amount of money, most payment providers require you to become ‘verified' this is usually nothing more than the minimum they need to do to comply with the law. If you haven't been asked for your bank and credit card details already, you will be at this point, and some services will even ask you to fax them a photocopy of your physical card, to prove you're the real cardholder. Some services will even cross-reference your phone number with your address and then phone you up to make sure it really was you. Don't be too disturbed by all this: it's all in the name of security, and you're not doing anything bad (or at least I hope you're not!).

Step 4: Add the Payment Button to Your Pages.

When it comes time to actually start accepting customers' money through the service, all you'll need to do in most cases is add some kind of button or image of a button to your sales page that says ‘Pay Now'. The payment service will usually provide the HTML for this, and a few tutorials to explain things like ways to make sure that the correct amount shows up on the payment page.

Step 5: Withdraw Often.

Whenever you're dealing with electronic payments, the final step is to withdraw every time you get an amount of money you consider significant, and an absolute minimum of once per week. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the biggest one is that online payment services aren't anywhere near as strictly regulated as other financial institutions, and aren't under that much of an obligation to give it to you in any timely manner. You should consider any money left with them to be at risk until it's securely in your bank account. Besides, you don't want your money sitting there earning interest for them instead of you, do you?

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