Visa Inc. says the technology it is adopting to reduce authorization hold times for gas purchases could be applied eventually to other types of merchants, though it has no immediate plans to do so.
The San Francisco company announced another change Tuesday, saying it had revised a rule that required merchants to treat PIN debit transactions differently from signature debit.
That change was in response to an antitrust investigation led by the Department of Justice, which said it has closed the investigation.
Last week Visa said it would start updating its systems to offer "real-time" clearing for fuel purchases. For such transactions, as well as certain hotel and restaurant purchases, debit issuers often freeze an estimated amount of the purchase, which can be more than the actual transaction amount, in the cardholder's account until the payment is settled. The update, to be rolled out in mid-October, will reduce the freeze period from as much as three days to no longer than two hours, Visa said.
The change will not apply to hotel and restaurant purchases.
The update, announced the same day Visa said it was lowering interchange rates for fuel purchases, has been "in the works for quite some time," Tad Fordyce, Visa's head of global cross platform product and development, said in an interview Monday. With "rising gas prices and additional public scrutiny, we felt that we wanted to redouble our efforts and get this in the market as quickly as possible."
Though the technology can be applied systemwide, he said, there are "no plans right now to roll it out to another industry." Visa could introduce it later "where there is a specific need," but "the focus has been recently on solving this problem for the oil industry."
The real-time system works on both credit and debit cards, Mr. Fordyce said, but "debit is typically the card that is used" for gas purchases, especially at the pump. "The challenge in the oil industry is that almost 70% of transactions at automated fuel dispensers are with debit funds."
Observers said it would make little sense for Visa to rush to update its systems in sectors where there was less demand from consumers for shorter freezes, like restaurants, hotels, and rental car agencies that cater largely to business travelers.
"It's not that widely known or widely used where merchants will put a hold above what you are spending," said Red Gillen, a senior banking analyst at Celent LLC, a Boston financial research arm of Marsh & McLennan Cos. "The problem with gas is, it's kind of out of control."
Adil Moussa, an analyst at Aite Group LLC in Boston, said that despite the program's limited scope, "it is in the best interests of MasterCard and the others to actually follow suit. If it happens to be a … successful program, Visa is going to have a significant advantage."
A spokeswoman for MasterCard Inc. would say only that it "continues to evaluate ways in which our network can be improved."
Visa said Tuesday that in response to inquiries by the Department of Justice and the attorneys general of Ohio, New York, and the District of Columbia, it had revised its U.S. operating regulations "to expand the conditions under which non-Visa debit transactions can be processed without PIN validation on Visa-branded debit cards."
Previously, Visa allowed merchants to waive signatures for some "small-ticket" and online transactions processed over its network, but it did not allow PIN waivers by merchants that process transactions over a non-Visa PIN debit network. The Justice Department said it had been looking into whether this rule hurt competition.
Visa said the rule was "fair and competitive," but the revision "will give merchants and financial institutions more processing options."