‘Listen. My boyfriend is in a hospital just outside Guatemala City. He doesn’t have enough money on him to pay for his medical services in cash, like they asked him to. I have never done this before and the money needs to get to him today. I have time to run to the bank to take out money and then run over to your store to wire him the funds, but I do not have time to go back and forth a few times so I need to know exactly how much I will need to take out to pay for any transfer fees and the difference in exchange rates so that he will receive $200 from me. Can you help me?”
I don’t have a boyfriend in a Guatemalan hospital. Nor do I usually make phone calls and demand information from people I don’t know personally. I am not really as emotionally distressed as I sound, except for the fact that I have had to call the same woman three other times, change my accent and my story, and request the same information in different ways. I like to call this one my “entitled” voice. It is the one that I fall back on when personalities one through three fail to get me the data I need.
I spent the summer working on a research project comparing remittance costs from different cities across the United States to various Latin American countries. This means posing as someone who wants to send money to family abroad and comparing transfer costs.
Remittances account for $60 billion that go to Latin America every year, but most migrants are sending home somewhere around $200 or maybe $500 at a time. The differences in exchange rates from the daily rate give some of these companies a chance to significantly boost their profits without disclosing these hidden costs.
Remittance tellers are usually happy to tell you about initial fees, even when they vary from different sending locations, but they will not tell you the exchange rates without careful prodding. The exchange rate from one company in particular means that 10 percent of the money sent to a family in Guatemala really goes to the transfer company. But they would rather not have that information out there.
When I asked for that exchange rate in my first, “very pleasant, Spanish-speaking local with family back in Guatemala” personality, the remittance teller told me she could not give me that information and hung up the phone. The same woman told me that I would have to come into the store for information when I spoke in my “very spacey, city-girl Chilanga” accent. She told me that she could not help me over the phone, because it was against their policy, when I called her in “desperate Spanish,” pleading for her help because my mother was sick and needed me to send her money so that she could buy her medication. So the “entitled American English” voice came out and I finally got the information that I needed.
Sometimes people answer the phone and ask me what company I am calling from before they hang up on me. Most migrants do not call remittance locations beforehand to compare prices and select the best one. I am lucky in that usually one of my personalities gets something out of them.
The Frank-Dodd Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act includes provisions that require that remittance transfer companies disclose all information regarding transfer fees, exchange rates and taxes in a simplified and easily comprehensible format. Companies like Western Union and Moneygram disclose all of their information online, making them the most transparent but not necessarily the cheapest services. The challenge, in future years, will come from trying to regulate money transfers between two countries, like Guatemala and the United States, that have different levels of technology and financial structures used to reach their clients. For now, families will have to find their own way to navigate through the fancy wording, hidden fees and transnational exchanges.
Diana Enriquez is a junior in Saybrook College.