Star Systems Inc., which runs the largest debit card and automated teller machine network in the country, will announce today that it has licensed an Internet debit card payment system developed by an East Coast competitor, NYCE Corp.
The pact may represent the most significant advance to date toward making on-line debit card payments a routine part of commerce on the Internet, which today does not accommodate these cards. The two regional networks plan to make the Internet product, SafeDebit, available to their member financial institutions, which together number more than 5,500. NYCE and Star will also encourage the banks to send free SafeDebit software to on-line banking and debit card customers, in what could amount to America Online-style marketing.
Regional electronic funds transfer networks have so far been frozen out of the Internet boom, since on-line debit transactions - which require personal identification numbers - have been incompatible with that type of e-commerce. Though it is unusual for competitors like NYCE and Star to collaborate on anything, the companies said an overriding goal was to bring on-line debit to the Internet for a national audience.
"Right now, fear is the biggest barrier to consumer transactions on the Internet," said Ron Congemi, president and chief executive officer of Star, of Maitland, Fla. "SafeDebit enables us to clear that hurdle so that consumers bring the same confidence to an Internet transaction that they now experience at the corner ATM."
SafeDebit is a CD-ROM that fits into a personal computer. In place of the secure, hardware-encrypted keypads that consumers use to perform on-line debit transactions in physical stores, SafeDebit users would type an "e-PIN" on their computer keyboard.
An Internet merchant that had agreed to participate would have a "SafeDebit" option on the payment page of its Web site, along with more familiar brands like Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. Consumers who wanted to use SafeDebit would click on that option, activating the software.
For now, promoters of the system - who have a lot to gain if on-line debit becomes a popular Internet tool - face the formidable task of getting a critical mass of banks and merchants to sign up. Drug store giants CVS Corp. and Walgreen Co. have agreed to take SafeDebit, and Michigan National Bank has backed the program. NYCE says it expects to announce the participation of more retailers and a large, Northeast bank within the next month; SafeDebit will be made available to consumers as early as May.
"We're very hopeful that we would have a substantial presence for this holiday season," said Dennis Lynch, president and CEO of NYCE, which is based in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
Mr. Lynch said the licensing agreement with Star is an "essential foundation" for building a distribution network for SafeDebit. "This is really about entering a new generation of payments with a common vision of how it can be successful."
Other regional networks may join the mix, adding the weight of their brand names to NYCE and Star. Industry experts say SafeDebit may evolve into a more formal business venture among the major networks.
Proponents of SafeDebit call it a safer alternative than some other Internet payment methods, and say that consumers want the option of having Internet purchases deducted immediately from their bank accounts.
NYCE announced SafeDebit in December, and Michigan National Bank of Farmington Hills, Mich., promptly said it would be the first to distribute the software.
Star and NYCE say their reputations and banking ties will make SafeDebit prevail over the handful of similar products being brought to market. A company called SafeTPay last week announced a service that would let consumers pay for Internet goods with their ATM cards, using a card reader they would attach to their PC.