Click On The Dotted Line

It's a sign for the times: The digital signature has arrived. Now, you can sign legally binding financial documents, contracts, or purchase orders without ever putting pen to paper--if both sides are set up for it.

How does it work? The most common way is for each party to get its own "digital certificate," a piece of code that identifies the sender. If you're working with a big company, they'll send the code to you. Otherwise, both sides need to download a certificate from a "certificate authority." The leader, VeriSign (www.verisign.com), charges $14.95 annually. After that, just click on an icon and enter a PIN.

Gartner Group predicts that by 2004, digital signatures will be used in 10% of business-to-consumer transactions, and B2B use should grow faster. Banks, law firms, real estate companies, and car dealers will be among the first users. Move over, John Hancock.