The Independent Bankers Association of America and Thomas Cook Financial Services will team up next spring to test-market Visa's prepaid card for travelers with an eye toward offering it through community banks around the United States.

Visa introduced the card, TravelMoney, two years ago. It is currently offered by 13 financial institutions worldwide, including Barnett Banks Inc. and First Bank System Inc. in the United States.

One or two community banks are to offer the prepaid card service by mid- 1997, before the IBAA rolls it out to all of its member banks.

"Selling this niche product into an association like the IBAA that has hundreds of community banks gives Visa substantial clout. It's a very smart and strategic way to grow," said James L. Accomando, a consultant in Fairfield, Conn.

Community banks under the IBAA umbrella have an arrangement with Thomas Cook to sell travelers checks and exchange currency. IBAA members sell about $300 million of Visa and MasterCard travelers checks each year.

Visa TravelMoney combines the attributes of an automated teller machine card and a travelers check, allowing travelers to access local currency from any Visa/Plus ATM around the world.

The card carries a magnetic stripe, but unlike a stored value card has no value in itself. All monetary transactions occur over the Visa network.

Consumers can get the card with any dollar amount at participating banks. Although the cards are not reloadable, consumers can cash out or roll over any residual balances to a new card.

Consumers can select, or are assigned, a personal identification number and are guaranteed a 24-hour turnaround on lost or stolen cards.

Robert L. Dowd, national accounts manager for Thomas Cook Financial Services, sees the card as a complement to travelers checks.

"One advantage of the card is that you can obtain a more favorable rate at an ATM than you can at a bureau de change," he said. "But in some other countries, unlike in Western Europe and North America, sales of travelers checks are increasing. We are looking to balance the products together."

"Visa TravelMoney will cannibalize some travelers check programs, but in the long term I doubt that consumers will allow it to replace travelers checks," said Mr. Accomando.

A plastic travelers check "for most people in their 20s, 30s, or 40s is not really an issue, because they have grown up with ATM cards and credit cards and so they are comfortable using them," said Steve Ello, director of services for IBAA.

Thomas Cook started marketing the card through its retail locations in the United Kingdom in August and expects the U.S. pilot to last at least nine to 12 months.

"It is key for us to make it through the summer season, which is obviously the big travel season," said Michael DeSimone, North American project manager for Visa TravelMoney at Interpayment Services, a subsidiary of Thomas Cook.

Although Thomas Cook is also rumored to be courting a major commercial bank, "We don't just want to use major commercial banks in the pilot, because their sales may be completely different from what a community bank would end up with," said Mr. DeSimone.

Thomas Cook said there will more than likely be a fee - similar to that on travelers checks - when consumers purchase the card.

Visa plans to make an announcement in the coming month, naming 16 more financial institutions that will issue the cards.

There is no comparable product from MasterCard International, but American Express Co. is rumored to have some type of electronic travelers check in preparation.

"The Visa TravelMoney card is not really an electronic travelers check because it can only be used at ATMs, not point of sale terminals," said Toby Usnik, a spokesman for American Express.

"Also you don't have the security of a travelers check, because once you withdraw that money, it's muggable cash."

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