Guidelines issued Tuesday give national bank examiners broad authority to investigate possible Fair Credit Reporting Act violations.

Revisions to the law effective September 1997 prohibited banking regulators from including credit reporting compliance in their regular examinations. Federal regulators may review a financial institution's compliance only after evidence of a possible violation surfaces, such as a customer complaint.

In an interview, Julie L. Williams, acting Comptroller of the Currency, said Congress' decision to remove fair credit reporting compliance from regular exams "restricts our ability to protect the accuracy and privacy of bank customer information." She pledged to "do as much as we can within the constraints of the law."

Tuesday's guidelines instruct national bank examiners to launch credit reporting investigations if they uncover "any specific information" about possible violations, including actions discovered during the normal course of a routine exam.

Investigations spurred by complaints may cover transactions not specifically identified, but they must be related to the allegations, the agency said. Examiners may also review other customer files or conduct a full examination for compliance with credit reporting rules to determine whether a violation has occurred.

If the OCC verifies that a violation has occurred, the law lets the agency conduct full credit reporting examinations during the next two regularly scheduled examinations.

On Friday at a White House news conference, Vice President Al Gore urged Congress to reinstate routine Fair Credit Reporting Act reviews.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act revisions were passed in 1996 after years of debate and gave financial firms broader authority to provide customer information to affiliates. Companies also are required to notify consumers how the data will be used and give them an option to keep the information from being shared.

The examination restrictions were included as part of several compromises needed to win industry support.

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