Wal-Mart Files Suit Against Visa for $5B

By Shelly BanjoDow Jones Newswires

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) has sued Visa Inc. (NYSE:V) for more than $5 billion, claiming the card network charged unreasonably high fees when the retailer's customers paid with plastic.

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Retailers are charged fees set by Visa and other card networks every time a customer pays with a credit or debit card. In its suit, Wal-Mart alleges that the way Visa set those "swipe fees" violated antitrust regulations and generated more than $350 billion for card issuers over nine years, in part at the expense of the retailer and its customers.

Visa declined to comment. The company has repeatedly denied that its fees are anticompetitive.

The lawsuit, filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, extends a long-running battle between the retailer and the payments network. Wal-Mart helped win a $3 billion class-action settlement with Visa and MasterCard Inc. in 2003 over the card networks' requirement that merchants who accepted their credit cards must also accept their debit cards.

Interchange fees, the industry term for card-swipe fees, have been another major point of contention between the two camps. The fees are set by Visa and other card networks and collected by card-issuing banks like J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Retailers have argued that the fees had been set too high due to a lack of competition with the two payment industry giants.

Smaller retailers settled over the issue in July 2012, but dozens of large merchants including Wal-Mart, Target Corp. and Macy's Inc. opted out so they could pursue suits of their own--hence the suit filed this week.

Companies that opted out of the settlement have argued that the deal wouldn't prohibit card networks from raising card-processing fees later on and would require merchants to waive their rights to sue payment networks on all current or future payment methods, ranging from credit cards to mobile phones.

The settlement received final approval by a federal judge in December, though several retailers have appealed. It is aimed at ending more than 50 lawsuits filed against the card networks and large banks that issue cards since 2005. Under the settlement, merchants stand to receive about $5.7 billion.

Wal-Mart used the lawsuit filed this week to throw in a laundry list of complaints against Visa, including claims that the high fees imposed by the payment network caused the retailer to lose sales.

"The anticompetitive conduct of Visa and the banks forced Wal-Mart to raise retail prices paid by its customers and/or reduce retail services provided to its customers as a means of offsetting some of the artificially inflated Interchange Fees," the company said. "As a result, Wal-Mart's retail sales were below what they would have been otherwise."

Wal-Mart also took a shot against Visa over payment card security. Data breaches last year at Target Corp., Neiman Marcus and others have drawn attention to the country's slow adoption of card technology that uses computer chips and PIN numbers and is seen as less susceptible to fraud than the current system of magnetic stripes.

"Wal-Mart was further harmed by anti-innovation conduct on the part of Visa and the banks, such as perpetuating the use of fraud-prone magnetic stripe system in the U.S. and the continued use of signature authentication despite knowledge that PIN authentication is more secure, a fact Visa has acknowledged repeatedly," it said in the suit.

Visa and MasterCard have been pushing merchants and banks to adopt the technology, arguing it could significantly reduce the impact of data breaches. Both companies have set an October 2015 deadline for merchants to upgrade to the technology or face increased liability for future data breaches.

Some banking groups have previously accused merchants of dragging their feet on adopting the technology.

(Andrew R. Johnson contributed to this article.)