MasterCard International said it is taking steps to shorten the delays that occur when a card-issuing bank must be called to complete a point-of-sale authorization.

By instituting a system called Automated Referral Service, MasterCard aims to eliminate most of the five to 10 minutes that can be lost when a store's card-reading terminal does not authorize the sale.

"Delays at the point of sale cause inconvenience for cardholders, merchants, acquirers, and often translate into lost sales for issuers," said MasterCard executive vice president Philip P. Verdi.

Toll-Free Number

When fraud is suspected or some other problem arises, a point-of-sale terminal signals the need to call the card-issuing bank.

With the Automated Referral Service, a merchant calls a toll-free number that will put it in touch with the card issuer.

If the issuer's line is busy or the call is not answered in 30 seconds, MasterCard will respond on behalf of the issuer, using pre-approved guidelines.

By centralizing the referral procedure, the system eliminates the need for acquirers to keep many issuers' telephone numbers on file.

MasterCard says it receives 225,000 to 250,000 such referrals in an average month.

Referrals usually occur when an issuer wants to verify the identity of the customer, but the issuer may also be flagging a cardholder who wants to make an expensive purchase or is near or over the credit limit.

MasterCard's offering comes a little over a year after Visa introduced a similar referral service.

Some of the larger merchants and transaction processors already have the capability to get in touch with the issuer.

"The automated referral services really help the smaller banks that can't afford to invest in their own program," said Craig Millington, senior vice president of Family Bank in University Park, III.

"They requested this of MasterCard, and the bigger banks developed their programs out of necessity."

A spokeswoman for MasterCard said the Automated Referral System also benefits the larger banks, because they would not otherwise have the advantage of MasterCard intervening in the process and accepting some of the calls.

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