Equifax Inc. envisions a future in which people can buy credit reports in retail stores.
That is already happening in Chile, through a subsidiary of Atlanta- based Equifax, which owns the largest credit bureau operation in the United States.
Thomas F. Chapman, Equifax chief executive officer , is a big fan of the Chilean venture and would like to duplicate it here.
At a time when privacy concerns are at a fever pitch, however, easier access to consumer credit reports, which contain sensitive personal and financial information, could be an invitation for a public-relations disaster, or worse.
Mr. Chapman disagrees.
"If consumers could come in and purchase certain types of information- based products and services, it would equip them. It would demystify" credit reports, Mr. Chapman said in an interview at a recent conference on privacy issues in Washington.
In 1994, Equifax bought a 25% stake in Dicom SA, a Chilean information services company. In 1997, Equifax increased its ownership to 100%, adding its name to the corporate logo. This month Dicom/Equifax opened a retail site in Lima, Peru, and it plans to open a second one there by yearend.
Mr. Chapman said he is "enthralled" by the Chilean operation. "As everyone knows at Equifax, I would like to do that in the United States."
In Chile, anyone can buy corporate and consumer credit reports at so- called information stores-retail outlets staffed by uniformed personnel. There are 10 such stores in Chile's capital, Santiago, and six more in other regions of the country.
The stores, in subway stations and shopping centers, "look like McDonald's," Mr. Chapman said. "You order stuff off a menu of information."
For about $5.50, a Chilean report includes consumer information such as Social Security number, address, job, bounced checks, and unpaid bills. Corporate information is also tracked, but unlike in U.S. credit reports, there is very little positive information available, which reflects creditworthiness based on a customer's actual bill-paying performance, for example.
The data base is derived from public records.
"People go to our stores, for example, if they want to do business with someone they don't know," said Marco Antonio Alvarez, general manager of Dicom/Equifax.
Dicom/Equifax also provides its information by telephone and over the Internet. Corporate customers can get the company's information electronically. Some stores are self-service, requiring a prepaid identification card whose value is debited for each service purchased. In these stores, customers obtain information directly through personal computers and print out what they need.
Amid the prevailing "privacy paranoia" in the United States, Mr. Chapman conceded, the Dicom/Equifax model would be flatly rejected. But he contended it will eventually come to pass.
For now, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the main law regulating U.S. credit bureaus, stipulates that credit reports can be purchased by people or companies with a "permissible purpose" to do so, and only with the permission of the subject.
In Chile there are no such laws. "The most important difference between the U.S. and Chile is FCRA," Mr. Alvarez said.
"I think Equifax has a role to play as an 'infomediary' in helping people to better understand and use that information," Mr. Chapman said.
"Some day there will be an opportunity for perhaps your credit, financial, and medical information to be embedded in some sort of technology and you can go in there and update it by swiping your card," he added.
Rebates on the Citibank Driver's Edge credit card can now be used toward the purchase or lease of any used vehicle.
Before Jan. 1, Driver's Edge points could be used only for a new car or truck. Citibank said the program was expanded in recognition of the growing popularity of used vehicles; 73% percent of all vehicles sold in 1997 were used.
The Driver's Edge program was created last January in place of a cobranded card that the Citigroup subsidiary had offered with Ford Motor Co.