ATM cards, introduced 20 years ago as a way to get cash, are becoming an increasingly popular payment alternative to cash and checks, a MasterCard International study has found.

But the survey, commissioned for MasterCard's U.S. Debit Services Division, suggested that consumers would use ATM cards more at the point of sale if they knew where and how to do it.

Opinion Research Corp. surveyed 1,010 adults for MasterCard and found that 53% of them own an ATM card. Of those, 39% used the card at least twice a week to make cash withdrawals or for other banking functions.

Although two-thirds of cardholders interviewed were aware that they can use their cards at the point of sale, only one-third actually paid for goods and services with their ATM cards.

The most popular retail locations are grocery stores and gas stations.

Consumers said they use their ATM cards at local merchants for convenience, safety, and to replace checks.

Even so, 47% of cardholders said they would be more likely to use their cards at the point of sale if they knew more about how and where to use them.

In response, MasterCard will launch a national consumer education program in September geared to helping consumers learn more about shopping with ATM cards.

"Almost half of ATM card owners don't know about the services already available on their cards that let them shop," said James Desrosier, vice president of marketing and promotion for MasterCard Debit Services.

"We as an industry need to do a better job educating consumers about the services they already have," he added.

Using ATM cards to make purchases is a growing trend, with POS acceptance expanding from 7.4 million retail transactions in June 1988, to 32.2 million in June 1993, according to the Faulkner & Gray Data Book, which predicts that by the year 2000, consumers will make purchases 450 million times a month with their ATM cards.

"Consumer education could have a big impact on the business," said Mr. Desrosier.

Revenues from debit cards come from transaction fees and, in some cases, monthly fees. Issuing banks determine those prices.

Mr. Desrosier said that 70% of a financial institution's checking account customers could be offered a debit enhancement to their ATM cards.

ATM cards enhanced with the MasterCard logo can be used for POS transactions wherever MasterCard is accepted worldwide, as well as at merchant locations accepting Maestro, MasterCard's on-line debit transaction network.

Visa-enhanced ATM cards are accepted worldwide through Visa's on-line Interlink network or at Visa member merchant locations.

A Cirrus or Plus logo on ATM cards allows consumers to access cash at ATMs internationally.

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