NEW YORK - Visa USA Inc. and MasterCard International Inc. were sued by three New Yorkers who accuse the world's top two credit-card associations of using anti-competitive practices and forcing consumers to pay higher retail prices.

The suit, which seeks class-action status on behalf of all residents of New York State who shop in stores that accept MasterCard and Visa credit cards, parallels one filed in 1996 by several retailers and an antitrust action by the Justice Department in 1996. Filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, the new suit seeks unspecified damages, claiming that retailers have passed along to consumers higher costs incurred as a result of the card networks' attempt to dominate the debit card industry.

In the retailers' suit, which is scheduled for trial this year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Sears, Roebuck & Co., and other retailers allege that Visa and MasterCard force stores to accept their debit cards - VisaCheck and MasterMoney - if merchants also want to handle purchases made with the defendants' credit cards.

The plaintiffs are seeking as much as $50 billion in damages. MasterCard and Visa officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on the consumers' suit. The Justice Department's suit is scheduled for trial next Monday.

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