The increasingly crowded secured credit card field is gaining another major player.

Wachovia Corp. has begun offering cards in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, secured through deposits held in interest-bearing savings accounts at the Winston-Salem banking company.

Credit limits range from $500 to $5,000 depending on a holder's ability to repay.

"We wanted to put out a card that we could serve all of our customers with," said Herbert M. Wayne, a senior vice president at Wachovia. "This card over time will work to establish your credit if you handle it properly."

The Wachovia Secured Visa is aimed at individuals needing to establish a credit rating or repair one that has been damaged. It offers the same terms as Wachovia's Prime Plus Card, with an annual percentage rate of the prime rate plus 2.9%, along with an annual $39 fee. No application fee is required.

The announcement comes on the heels of a decision by secured card pioneer Key Federal Savings to lower its rates by 3.09%.

Bank interest in the market has grown in recent years. What was once an industry backwater has gained legitimacy with the likes of Citicorp, BankAmerica Corp., and Wachovia pursuing this segment.

"There are many more issuers today, and that is good for consumers," said Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America, a consumer group in Herndon, Va. "Some rates have gone down, and some fees have gone from common to unusual, like the application fee."

"We are now seeing a truly competitive rate, which for consumers is terrific," she said. "From our perspective, there was never a good enough reason to have rates as high as they were. The risk is not there, because the card is guaranteed by a deposit."

Beginning in the second quarter, Wachovia will arrange free consumer seminars about the secured Visa for community groups in the bank's market areas.

"You can't simply put down a deposit and get one of these cards," said Mr. Wayne. "You've still got to credit-qualify. We still check the debt."

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