No nice guy, Citigroup. Determined to get into the debit card business in a big way, Citigroup has been sending letters to its retail customers informing them that their ATM cards will be replaced by debit cards.

A number of customers reacted very negatively to having something they didn't want shoved down their throats. "They told me that my ATM card would be cancelled on a certain date without even asking me if I wanted to change," says an irate New Yorker.

She is particularly annoyed that she had to take the initiative to reverse the bank's decision. When she called to complain, a bank representative told her that she'd have to wait until she received the card and could cancel it then. She also was told that she had only 30 days to cancel, after that it couldn't be done. No choice--or no easy choice, at least.

She is concerned about security, believing that legally the most she could lose on a credit card was $50, and that there was no limit on the loss a consumer could sustain on a debit card. In its mailing, Citi gave no comfort on this issue.

But annoyed consumers may not be Citi's biggest problem. A battle is raging between merchants and debit card issuers and processors over whether retailers should be forced to accept debit cards that require signatures as well as those for which a PIN can be used.

Merchants don't like the signature cards because they are charged higher fees on them. Similarly, regional electronic funds networks, such as New York-based NYCE, doesn't want the signature cards because they bypass the networks.

Citi, of course, with its millions of cards outstanding and its prominent role in the merchant-fee business, would have a lot to gain if signature cards beat out PIN cards.


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