Visa International said it has made technological enhancements to its card authorization and automated teller machine systems.

In the transaction authorization area, Visa said it is automating the borderline calls known as referrals. And in its Plus ATM network, Visa said it is capable of delivering of cardholder balance information to machines anywhere in the world.

The upgrades were announced two weeks ago at the card association's annual board meetings in Milan.

The authorization enhancement, called the International Automated Referral Service, is scheduled to be in place by October, said Sonia Vicente, executive vice president of delivery systems for Visa's Latin America region.

Visa said it will be the first to automate the referral process worldwide. Except in the United States, referrals are handled manually, which depresses bank card sales.

Referrals occur when an authorization inquiry results in neither an approval nor a rejection. Merchants are told to call their authorization center to obtain the information or clarifications necessary to complete the payment.

Because the process is cumbersome, retail sales people often treat the "call" message as a rejection, ask for another card, or decline to make the sale - even though nine out of 10 referral calls result in approvals.

Visa estimated that ignored referrals cause $3 billion of lost sales annually. The San Francisco-based association reported more than $600 billion in card payments last year.

The automated referral system, combining a toll-free telephone call with Visa's global telecommunications network, provides an efficient, low-cost way for merchants and their banks to make contact with the cardholder's bank and resolve any problems.

When there is a referral, "the merchant bank will be instructed by an automated voice response unit to key in the cardholder account number," Ms. Vicente told a press briefing. "The information will be routed automatically to the card-issuing bank."

If the issuer is not available, Visa's VisaNet operation stands in, authorizing the transaction up to a previously defined limit. The service is available in all major languages and through any means of input, including the rotary dial telephones and telexes that are prevalent in parts of the world.

Visa said that in a recent pilot, the average waiting times on international referrals fell to about five minutes from five hours.

"IARS will create service-quality advantages that can lead to a stronger preference for Visa cards," said Laura Gregory, senior vice president, Visa global operations services.

"The service also provides members with a cost-effective fraud prevention toll that reduces unnecessary risk taking," she added.

Separately, the Visa/Plus international ATM network gave card-issuing members the option of giving cardholder credit and deposit balances at ATMs in the local currency.

Currently available in the Telered network in Panama, OCBC in Singapore, and throughout the United States, the service is scheduled to be available through Visa Espana in Spain next month and in Italy, Portugal, and Spain later in the year.

"Our goal is to expand service coverage to span the globe," said Jean Stewart, Visa/Plus vice president. "Balance inquiry has always been a popular service domestically, and now members can offer their cardholders the same convenience wherever they use ATMs."

Plus System, Visa's ATM unit, recently filled a gap in its global coverage by connecting 2,000 ATM locations in France, with 6,000 more expected by yearend. France is the 67th country where Plus cards are accepted; French ATMs have allowed Visa cardholders to withdraw francs since 1985.

The Visa/Plus network has 239,000 locations in 87 countries, slightly more than the most recently reported numbers of competing MasterCard/Cirrus.

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