- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

Wachovia Bank plans to roll out a new ATM card for its Hispanic customers in the Washington area next month to help them send money to friends and family in Latin America.

Customers can add value to the cards at automated teller machines, by telephone or at branch banks, and mail them to countries throughout Latin America, where they can be cashed at any ATM in the Visa/Plus network.

The Wachovia Dinero Directo Card, or money direct card, is the latest entry in the bank competition to win customers in the Washington area’s fastest-growing minority community.

The card follows the marketing theory that a customer for one banking service becomes a customer for other services, such as home or business loans.

Hispanics represent more than 13 percent of the U.S. population and are the nation’s fastest-growing minority, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

“We want to have a long-term relationship with these individuals,” said Jorge Moller, Wachovia’s Hispanic segment strategy director.

The Hispanic immigrant population sends about $36 billion home to Latin America each year.

Until now, many Hispanics used electronic transactions handled by small companies that specialize in money transfers or shipments to Latin America.

The Dinero Directo Card represents an effort to bring the remittances into the traditional banking system, said Ralph Luna, manager of the Wachovia branch at 3325 14th St. NW.

Friday afternoon, he explained the card to Ramon Cruz, who was getting change for the restaurant he owns in Columbia Heights.

“It could be good,” said Mr. Cruz, who sends about $400 per month to his mother and brother in El Salvador. “Maybe more security.”

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. says 32 percent of Hispanics do not have bank accounts, although their buying power is close to $600 billion.

Mr. Luna said part of the reason is the distrust they feel toward banks in their home countries.

“You look at a lot of the banks in Latin America and they think the bankers are crooks,” Mr. Luna said.

The multinational ATM cards are another service that could help them build trust for Wachovia and other American banks, he said.

Other banks have offered similar ATM cards that can be cashed in Mexico and a few other Latin American countries.

Citibank, for example, offers its Binational Card that allows customers to open accounts in the United States but have other people make withdrawals through Banamex branches and ATMs. Banamex, Mexico’s second-largest bank, is an affiliate of Citibank parent company Citigroup.

“We’re actually one of the pioneers,” said spokesman Luis Rosero. “We’re trying to bank the unbanked. We’re trying to get customers to enter the banking mainstream.”

Wachovia is expanding the availability for cashing the cards throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

The bank says two-thirds of its Hispanic immigrant customers in the Washington area come from countries other than Mexico.

The bank charges no fee to open an account for the Dinero Directo Card, but the cost is $10 each time a customer adds value to it. People authorized by the account owner can withdraw cash at any of 950,000 ATMs worldwide. Each withdrawal costs them $1 plus the local ATM fee.

Since Wachovia started offering the cards in Florida and Texas in April, the average transaction has been $300.

The Washington Bank, a community bank being organized by Northern Virginia Hispanic businessmen, plans to offer similar cards when it starts operating. It is to open early next year.

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