More people are using debit cards to pay for goods on the Internet, according to Visa U.S.A.

From the day after Thanksgiving through last Sunday, consumers spent $543 million on the Internet with their Visa debit cards, 131% more than in the year-earlier period, in nearly 87% more transactions, the card association said.

Gerry Sweeney, vice president of marketing for e-Visa, said debit card use on the Internet is "creeping up to what it is in the physical world," where the split in card payments is 75% credit, 25% debit. On the Internet it is 80% credit versus 20% debit, according to Mr. Sweeney.

Consumers can use debit cards online the same way they use credit cards to pay for goods at Web sites: They simply type the account numbers in to the appropriate place on a merchant's order form. While people who view online payments as risky might say they felt particularly squeamish about sending into cyberspace a number linked directly to a deposit account, both Visa and MasterCard International have "zero liability" policies for online transactions with both debit and credit cards, which mean that people who are victims of fraud do not have to pay the damage done with either type of instrument provided they notify their bank promptly when the theft is discovered.

According to card industry executives, debit may have even more upside potential for Internet payments than credit, because consumers do not pay for e-commerce transactions with cash or checks.

Mr. Sweeney said people often use a debit card as a "budget management tool" so as not to go too deep into debt.

MasterCard declined to give their online debit card transaction numbers for the same period. A spokesman said MasterCard will release its numbers in January.

Debit cards also showed signs of progress in another survey. EdVenture Partners, a Berkeley, Calif., marketing and consulting firm, polled 163 students at 18 colleges across the country this fall, and found that 30% planned to use debit cards to buy holiday gifts, twice as many as said they would last year.

Among these college students, credit cards were the most popular choice of payment, at 49%, an increase of 63% from 1999. Cash took the biggest dive, going to 25% this year from 33% in 1999.

Tony Sgro, chief executive officer of EdVenture Partners, said that debit card use on the Internet is increasing because students like convenience. The college campus is becoming "a cashless society," he said.

Mr. Sgro said that students are turning to debit more because it is a more "premeditated purchase. People like the record keeping that the debit card provides."

Mr. Sgro also said he was surprised at the amount of money at students' disposal: The survey found that 20% of students plan to spend between $1,000 and $2,000 on items such as clothing, travel, and electronic gadgetry during the holiday season. Another 11% said they would spend more than $2,000.

Another study, conducted by GartnerGroup Inc., found less prevalence of online debit card use. GartnerGroup polled the top 200 e-tailers in the second quarter and found that 93% of the transactions they reported were conducted with a credit card; the remaining 7% were done with debit cards and checks.

Ken Kerr, senior analyst for GartnerGroup, a financial services consulting firm in Stamford, Conn., said the average debit card transaction is lower in dollar value in both the physical world and cyberspace - for reasons that he described as partly psychological, partly practical.

"I use my debit card to buy groceries," he said. "With credit, the sky's the limit - It's buy now, pay later." But the balance in a consumer's deposit account limits how much he or she can spend on a debit card.

Analyzing Visa's recent numbers, Mr. Kerr calculated that the average credit card purchase came to about $79 dollars, and the average debit card purchase was about $58.

The recent theft of 55,000 credit card numbers from the card processor Web site underscores the continuing vulnerability to consumers who buy over the Internet, Mr. Kerr said. Even with the associations' zero-liability policies, card-not-present debit transactions are more dangerous for consumers, he said, because of the potential for a thief to reach directly into someone's checking account.

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