Reasoning that people who pay utility bills on time would be equally diligent about credit card bills, bankers are trying to get access to credit bureaus' data on utility subscribers.
The credit information companies currently keep utility information separate from the credit reports they sell to bankers. One reason is that consumers want it that way, but also many state regulators frown on such information sharing as a violation of privacy.
Nevertheless, the credit bureaus are eager to sell the data to bankers.
It "would be a revenue opportunity for us as much as for anyone else," said Jeffrey L. Dodge, senior vice president of Equifax Inc., Atlanta. "Because of state laws, we don't have a good climate for putting this information in credit files."
Pressure from credit card lenders-whose quest for new marketing outlets is more ardent than ever-may change the situation, Mr. Dodge said. Talk of merging utility data bases with consumer credit files has recently gotten serious.
In March, Equifax formed the National Consumer Telecommunications Data Exchange, a consortium of long-distance telephone providers. Some participants are amenable to the idea of sharing credit information with bankers.
Consortium members AT&T, MCI Telecommunications, and Sprint are giving Equifax the names of customers who have not paid their phone bills and had their service disconnected, as well as new customers applying for service. So far, Equifax has gathered seven million records.
Trans Union Corp. of Chicago began marketing similar data bases earlier this year to the gas, electricity, telephone, and cable industries.
The telephone companies say they are simply trying manage their unpaid accounts, which, by some estimates, cost the industry $5 billion annually.
AT&T vice president Brent Bostwick said a few telephone companies are already reporting their data to the credit bureau files, and he believes more will follow.
Mr. Bostwick is also president of a new trade group, the Telephone Risk Management Association. He wants to invite lenders to its meetings "to see what's in it for both of us," he said, referring to the idea of adding telephone payment records to credit files.
Mr. Dodge said a growing number of bankers have ap-proached him about the utility data Equifax collects. They particularly want to identify people who have never borrowed money but who pay utility bills promptly.
"If you always pay your long-distance bill within three days of getting it, and you have been doing that for the past two years, then you are a pretty good credit risk," said Michelle Nacker, director of product development in Trans Union's communication and energy division.
Conversely, failure to pay a phone bill may indicate a consumer is not paying other bills.
Addressing that problem, Equifax and Trans Union are collecting information-on behalf of utilities-from consumers' applications for new telephone or electric services.