In response to escalating credit card fraud in the United States, MasterCard International has begun a pilot program designed to anticipate when new cards are likely to be stolen from the mail.

Credit card fraud has grown dramatically in recent years - 1991 saw a 56% rise in dollars lost to unauthorized card use, according to The Nilson Report, an industry newsletter.

MasterCard and Visa U.S.A. officials say the problem of never-received issues, or NRIs, has been a major contributor to the rising tide of crime. NRIs, as the name implies, are cards that are stolen before they ever reach the intended consumer.

Losses Jump 79%

Through August, losses from MasterCards stolen in the mail has grown 79% compared with the first eight months of 1991, reaching $34 million. Visa does not break fraud losses into specific categories.

"NRI fraud has become a major priority in our fraud control efforts, particularly in the United States, said Philip Verdi, executive vice president in electronic services at MasterCard.

Mr. Verdi added that for the first time, NRI fraud has overtaken losses due to cards stolen directly from consumers.

To combat this problem, MasterCard is implementing a plan to help card issuers avoid sending cards through proven danger zones on their way to consumers.

Data Base of Hot Spots

At the heart of MasterCard's program lies an extensive data base of mailing locations where large-volume card thefts have occurred in the past.

A typical large-volume shipment of cards will make five to 11 intermediate stops through the postal system as it travels between the issuer and cardholders, and the data base will help issuers identify high-risk way stations that should be avoided.

Once the high-risk locations are determined, special couriers are used to carry cards around those places.

The service, known as MasterCard Secured Delivery, will be tested at several institutions, including Signet Banking Corp., Richmond, Va., and Wells Fargo & Co., San Francisco.

Extra Cost Is Slight

MasterCard officials said that sending cards through Secured Delivery couriers costs only slightly more than mailing them individually by first-class mail.

The New York-based card company plans to insure issuers against any NRI losses incurred on cards delivered through the couriers. General rollout for the service is slated for the first quarter of next year.

"While delinquencies and chargeoffs are in decline, fraud continues to be a problem, and the solution to a large portion of that problem is changing the delivery mechanism," said Jerry H. Wagner, a senior vice president at Rocky Mountain Bank-Card System Inc. and president of the American Bankers Association's bank card division.

Visa's Pilot Program

MasterCard rival Visa is also responding to the trend. While downplaying the role that NRI fraud plays in overall credit card losses, Visa is nonetheless piloting a program to offer special Federal Express rates for those banks that wish to send cards through a more direct and secure medium than the U.S. mail.

While Visa officials acknowledge the program is expensive - $4 to $5 per shipment as opposed to under $1 for regular mail - they say that its record is spotless so far. Over 5 cards have been delivered without a single theft.

Since the average loss on a credit card fraud is about $800, according to the American Bankers Association survey, Visa officials maintain the service is easily justified.

But while the Visa and MasterCard programs are good first steps, Mr. Wagner and others warn that continued vigilance against the problem of NRIs is a must.

"Anything we do is going to have to continue to evolve over time, because these guys [criminals] work as hard at their jobs as we do at ours. Give them some time, and they'll find a new way."

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