SAN FRANCISCO - Hoping to remove a potential impediment to the growth of its national online debit-card program, Visa U.S.A. has banned merchant surcharges on Interlink Network transactions.

Research conducted for Interlink, a subsidiary of Visa U.S.A., showed that merchant fees as low as 10 cents per transaction have a negative effect on consumers. They are less inclined to use the cards, which allow them to tap their bank accounts to make purchases.

"As fees went up, their willingness to use [the cards] diminished," said Janet L. Pruitt, vice president of Interlink.

While most merchants do not add a charge for the use of ATM/debit cards, research found some charging as much as $1.50 per transaction.

Online debit programs are a key element in the strategies of both Visa and its rival bankcard association, MasterCard International, as they try to expand card usage in a maturing credit card market.

Rules on merchant surcharges vary among the automatic teller machine networks whose cards can also be used for purchases at outlets equipped to handle online debit.

Since many cards can be used for transactions over both an ATM system and Interlink, merchants may detour a few transactions away from Interlink, in order to take advantage of a regional network's more lenient rules.

However, Wesley C. Tallman, president and chief executive officer of Interlink, said the ban "is a responsible one because it benefits consumers who are starting to use the Interlink service nationally."

To accomodate merchants in Interlink's original five-state territory who already surcharge, the ban won't take effect until Nov. 1, 1996, in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, or Washington.

Visa acquired the network in 1991 and rolled the program out nationally.

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