Vital Processing Services unveiled a service package Monday that is designed to make credit card acceptance over the Internet faster and easier for merchants.

Vital has teamed up with Worldcom Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. to create a service that will accommodate various Internet security standards and allow merchants to obtain real-time authorizations.

The Tempe, Ariz.-based merchant processor said it expects to sell the offering, dubbed VirtualNet, to its first client by yearend. Costs of transactions will be comparable to rates currently charged to merchants. "Acquirers and merchants will begin to experience the potential of Internet commerce without fundamentally changing the way merchant accounts are handled today," said Stevan Berardo, executive vice president at Vital. It allows merchants a "common solution" to switch transactions.

Until now, competing proprietary formats and security issues have hampered the growth of Internet commerce. Merchants and acquirers would not have to scrap their existing systems to use the VirtualNet service, because it is designed to accept security standards such as SET (Secure Electronic Transaction), SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), and others.

"This is another access method" for Vital's system, said Ann Culver, a marketing manager at Worldcom Advance Networks, a subsidiary of the Jackson, Miss.-based telecommunications giant. "It really opens up" the business of accepting credit cards over the Internet.

The real-time authorization feature is another key selling point, executives said. At mail order houses, for instance, Internet transactions are typically received by a computer and later manually entered by operators into a telephone order system in batches.

Instead, VirtualNet would provide a direct connection via Worldcom Advance Networks. The subsidiary, formally Compuserve, was bought by Worldcom last year. IBM of Armonk, N.Y., will provide software that can read multiple Internet standards.

The Worldcom network then connects through Vital to VisaNet POS services, Vital's processing network. Vital, a fifty-fifty joint venture of Visa U.S.A. of San Francisco and Total System Services Inc. of Columbus, Ga., processes merchant credit card transactions for banks and independent sales organizations.

The VirtualNet service also gives merchants a type of one-stop shop for processing of all their credit card transactions, instead of having to look for a processor that can handle Internet payments.

"This is the kind of innovation midsize merchants are looking for," said Stanley Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates, Arvada, Colo. "Vital has taken that middleman role to say 'We can support you however you handle your Internet transactions.'"

Mr. Anderson predicted Vital's service will give it a head start and a possible "sustainable competitive advantage" against rivals such as First Data Corp., National Processing Corp., and Banc One Corp.'s Paymentech.

Also Monday, at the American Bankers Association Bank Card Conference in Philadelphia, Global Payments Systems of Atlanta announced a similar agreement with Verifone Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., to handle SSL and SET payments over the Internet. Global president David Hunt said Verifone's software will be a "gateway to our e-Global line of services."

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