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Company Fights to Maintain Western Union Services

Aug. 22, 2005 — Small agents who provide Western Union services to customers on St. Thomas and St. John have been told by Banco Popular — the bank that handles the Western Union accounts locally — that they are essentially out of business. However, a local mail service on St. John is fighting to keep the island in touch by keeping its links to the worldwide financial transaction and wire service.
On Monday Banco Popular terminated its dealings with one small agent. "Today a courier brought over a check from Banco Popular to shut down the account, so Banco Popular is definitely not continuing to honor the account," said Cid Hamling at Connections mail service.
Connections has been in business since 1983 and began offering Western Union wire services in 1990.
Hamling said she hopes a resolution can be found and that officials at Western Union seemed willing to try. But so far she said there was no indication how they would make it happen. "I've been told by a Western Union rep in Puerto Rico to continue to do Western Union although we cannot do any payouts," she said.
A spokesman for Western Union, speaking from their corporate offices in Colorado, said most of the half-dozen or so small agents have been told, as far as their company is concerned, they are still in business. "We regret that some of our agents have had their banking services suspended and we are working very closely with these agents to establish new banking relationships," said spokesman Victor Shayette. "We're working as diligently as possible to obtain a speedy solution."
In spite of its popularity as a tourist destination, St. John does not have an American Express office or a Traveler's Aid. They do, however, have a Western Union office, a familiar site for travelers around the world, and according to Hamling, one of the first places travelers in distress turn to for fast help.
Hamling says there was one time when a young visitor traveling alone wired home for help after realizing they had reached St. John, the wrong destination. They were supposed to arrive in St. Johns, Antigua.
Then there are the V.I. workers sending parts of their paychecks back home. According to Hamling, Banco Popular cited homeland security concerns and the need to keep better track of money transactions. "The kind of money we sent from St. John is $50 to Haiti, $50 to St. Lucia, $100 to Puerto Rico. It doesn't make sense," she said over the weekend.
Under the new rules, those workers can still send money home. They can also buy money orders and send messages. But unless a new banking agreement can be reached, stranded travelers will have to go to the larger Western Union outlets on St. Thomas to pick up cash.
For some of the regular customers like Calvin Maduro, a bellman at Caneel Bay Resort, the local service is a matter of convenience. He says he uses the service to pay his bills, send money to his daughter in college and a brother in Tortola. Sometimes money comes from a sister off island.
"If you take that from St. Johnians, it's going to hurt a lot of people," Maduro said Sunday. He is one of the many people who have signed a petition in support of continuing Western Union on island.
Together, they want to share an urgent message with Western Union and Banco Popular: St. Johnians want to take care of business close to home, without having to make a one-hour round trip St. Thomas to do so, especially if they have to check for delivery once or twice.
"If anybody feels like signing the petition, we have over 500 signatures. We're hoping to get more so that hopefully that would show another bank that this is a very much-needed service," Hamling said Monday.
The petition is one of the strategies that she says helped persuade Western Union to hire a local attorney to find a way for small agents to stay in business.
In addition to Connections on St. John, the Western Union Web site lists service outlets on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, including Pueblo Supermarkets, K-Mart, East End Secretarial, Krystal and Gifts Galore, Islander Services, Fast Shipping, Gicorbro Universal and Island Touch.
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