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Vending machine dispenses C-phones

Now there's a vending machine that dispenses a rental cellular phone kit, and it's only a little more complicated than the soda and food variety. So far, it's available at 70 locations throughout the United States, including airports, hotels, convention centers and car rental offices.

The InstaFone machine scans and approves your major credit card, then opens a door to dispense one of its 12 kits with phone, extra batteries, car adapter and built-in charger in a carrying case. Cost is about $6.95 per day; $1.60 for local and $2 for long-distance calls per minute.

You then return the phone kit to the machine, which checks the equipment and spits out an itemized, minute-by-minute bill charged to your credit card. No waiting in line while the clerk helps another customer over the phone. However, if something does go wrong, a swift kick is not recommended. There's a hotline to call for help. For more info and locations, call (800) 678-FONE.

Convinced that travelers are ready for a prepaid cash card to be used at automatic teller machines worldwide, Visa plans to begin test-marketing the concept in a few months and to have it fully available in North America in 1995.

The company expects that as many as 2-million such cards will be sold during its first year of full distribution and will suit people wishing to travel within a budget. Currently, credit-card holders can use their cards to withdraw cash; such a withdrawal is charged to accounts as a cash advance.

With a prepaid cash card, travelers will pay a fee for the card in addition to its value. The fee will vary, depending on the member bank, according to Gregory Holmes, a Visa spokesman.

A record of the prepayment will be stored at a central Visa processing site, which will be available for authorization 24 hours a day. Using the card and a personal identification number, selected at the time of purchase, purchasers will be able to get cash up to the card's limit at any Visa automatic teller machine _ currently 160,000 in 65 countries.

If the card is lost, Visa promises that customers will receive a replacement anywhere in the world within 24 hours. According to a spokesman, customers will not be held liable for the value of a lost or stolen card.

Local currency will be dispensed in every country, at what Visa said will be a favorable exchange rate. The card-holder can throw the card away when its value is used up, or receive a refund on any balance.