MasterCard and Visa have separate but similar consumer privacy policies. Which should their members embrace?

Uncharacteristically, the bank card associations say they don't care, so long as their members do something to address consumer privacy issues.

"Don't pick one over the other," advised Charlotte Newton, vice president for consumer and government affairs at MasterCard. "In essence, they say the same thing."

Consumer privacy is one of the few issues on which Visa and MasterCard do not compete.

Still, Visa developed 10 privacy "principles" in May 1995 for its members to use as a guide in developing their own policies. Similarly, MasterCard adopted a privacy "position" last November.

"Both associations have similar objectives," said Susan Murdy, vice president for corporate and public affairs for Visa. "The bottom line is that we are emphasizing privacy as a key issue."

The associations are trying to head off government regulation. The Federal Trade Commission is developing privacy guidelines that could affect how card issuers use personal account information.

Despite their combined efforts and uncommon accord, only a handful of credit card issuers are responding to the associations' message.

Perhaps card executives have reached the same conclusion about the subject of consumer privacy as Collin G. McKenny, senior vice president and manager of card services for Star Bank Corp.

"If you do a good job on (privacy) all the time, it isn't an issue," said the Cincinnati-based banker.

Star Bank has no formal privacy policy and has no plans to adopt one, she said.

Ms. Newton pointed out that MasterCard has only just begun to get the word out about its privacy "position," so it is still early to expect a majority of card issuers to react.

Visa officials, however, met with Ms. McKenny recently to discuss Star Bank developing privacy policies. Ms. McKenny said, "nothing came of the meeting."

Similarly, First USA has internal privacy guidelines to protect customers' privacy, said a spokesman David Webster. "The industry principles have not caused us to change our policies," he said.

In addition to MasterCard's privacy policy, the Purchase, N.Y.- based association just published a consumer brochure that explains how information is gathered and used by marketers and how consumers can control the use of such information.

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