Equifax Inc. has opened a new business division, Equifax Consumer Services, to increase sales of credit reports and other products to the public.
The bulk of Equifax's customers are institutions, but it also sells credit reports directly to people over the Internet and says it plans to introduce more products this way. People who order their credit profiles over the Internet get them by mail, but within a few weeks the new division plans to begin delivering reports electronically.
Consumer credit reports from other companies have been available on the Internet for several years, but Equifax said the technology it has developed to protect consumers against fraud and privacy invasions is the most sophisticated on the market.
"Our competition today is not going through the level of authentication we are applying," said Jeffrey L. Dodge, general manager of Equifax Consumer Services. "We are using 128-bit encryption, and others are using 40-bit or less."
Equifax of Atlanta is the only one of the three major credit bureaus selling credit reports directly to the public on-line, but it does not let other companies resell them. Experian Inc. of Orange, Calif., and Trans Union Corp. of Chicago have contracts with vendors that sell their reports but do not do so themselves.
In 1997, Experian became the first credit bureau to offer reports on the Internet, but its fame was short-lived. The first day the service went live, 14 reports were sent to the wrong customers, and the company pulled the plug.
Equifax is taking security measures to ensure that reports are delivered to the right customers. It asks people for personal details that will help identify them, such as the name of the bank where their mortgage is held. It also requires that they select a password, which is mailed to their home; once the password arrives, the credit report can be obtained on-line. This delay will disappear, Mr. Dodge said, once Equifax perfects its system.
Through an alliance with Lycos Inc., Equifax plans to set up a cobranded Web site that will sell Equifax reports and a credit monitoring service. The reports cost $8 each, and the monitoring service costs $49.95 a year. Equifax will manage the cobranded site.
Consumer advocates generally support the idea of on-line access to credit reports, but they are concerned about possible abuses.
"The idea of giving consumers access on the Internet poses risks of identity theft and privacy invasions if it's not done right," said Edmund Mierzwinski, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington.
Experian, an Equifax competitor, has a contract with QSpace of Oakland, Calif., which recently announced a new service for banks that want to sell credit reports on their own Web sites.
"Banks are a natural place for consumers to turn for information about their credit status," said I.O.A. "Ike" Eze, chief executive officer of QSpace. "Offering our bank-branded reports to their customers will not only enable banks to enhance their brand on-line, but they will benefit from revenue-sharing on all sales."
Mr. Dodge of Equifax estimated the current market for credit reports sold over the Internet at $200 million a year. Five million consumers are buying credit reports and credit monitoring services on-line, he said.
"Historically, our services have been aimed at institutions engaged in commerce with consumers," Mr. Dodge said. "But the Internet is bringing the consumer out into the open, providing them with a lot more influence and impact in the market."