A group of Taiwanese tourists was detained and strip-searched last month after one of them tried to use his MasterCard in a Vienna boutique, in a foul-up that quickly became an international embarrassment to the bank card industry.

A group of 21 tourists from Taiwan were suspected of fraud when one of them attempted to purchase a $10,000 Rolex watch with his Citibank MasterCard.

After the police got involved, 11 of the tourists were detained, strip-searched, and interrogated for eight hours without water, food, or access to restrooms or phones. They were released when Citibank confirmed that the cards were legitimate.

|Very Complicated System'

The incident left the bank and MasterCard scrambling to soothe feelings and quell boycott threats - at a time when overseas markets are seen as a key area of credit card growth.

Spencer Nilson, publisher of a credit card newsletter in Oxnard, Calif., said that while such a situation may never occur again, there is no way of knowing for sure. "Clearing transactions worldwide is a very complicated system," he said.

How could this happen?

The shopkeeper called Eurocard Austria upon receiving a "call me" message for authorization of the transaction.

Matching Mix-Up

EuroCard Austria, a MasterCard affiliate, compared the interbank card association numbers on the front and back of the tourist's MasterCard.

The numbers did not match, and are not supposed to. However, sometimes they do match, and the suspicions of someone at Eurocard were aroused. Since Citibank could not be reached, the sale was not authorized. When the tourist offered a different card for payment, police were called.

The four-digit numbers enable the banks and the association to determine who owns a card, but should not be of any concern at the point of sale, a MasterCard spokesman said.

Issuer Wasn't Contacted

MasterCard says the comparison that should be made is between the account number,embossed on the front of the card and the one encoded in the magnetic stripe or printed on the signature panel on the back, which is followed by a three-digit validation code.

The entire mix-up could have been avoided if Eurocard Austria had been able to make contact with Citibank in Taiwan.

A spokesman for Europay International, the umbrella group for Eurocard, said that besides the confusion over the numbers, several other factors led to police involvement.

According to the spokesman, Austria has had a high incidence of credit card fraud involving people from Asia. And the merchant in this case had recently lost money due to fraud in a large credit card transaction.

Boycott Announced

According to press reports in Taipei, when Foreign Minister Frederick Chien demanded an explanation and apology from Austrian police, he got only a statement of regret from the Austrian trade delegation. This was rejected by the government of Taiwan, and soon the Taipei Association of Tourist Agents said its members would discourage travel to Austria.

The group considered boycotting MasterCard, but the card association and Citibank moved quickly to quell the protests.

Each victim was offered $1,000 and a week's vacation in Hawaii. The offer was rejected. "What we're pursuing are consumers' rights, not personal interests," said the sponsoring tour group.

Citibank and MasterCard took further action, donating $180,000 to the Republic of China Consumers' Foundation. Newspaper ads with apologies to the tourists were promised, and Citibank requested that Eurocard place similar ads.

Educating Tourists, Merchants

MasterCard developed an education program that explains how Taiwanese people should use their cards overseas. It announced a 24-hour help line that will accommodate English and Mandarin speakers.

MasterCard also issued a notice to merchants and their banks in Europe emphasizing that the interbank numbers should not be compared.

Visa says that the problem could not occur in its system, because there is only one bank identification number on the front of its card, and it matches the first four digits of the customer account number.

"This is unprecedented," s spokesman for MasterCard International said. "Nobody knows why the ICA numbers were compared."

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