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Wire service to Mexico offered

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SAN FRANCISCO — Wells Fargo & Co. is poised to introduce a discount service for wiring money to Mexico, representing the latest move in the banking giant's courtship of the steadily growing Hispanic population in the United States.

The new service will charge a $10 flat fee for wiring as much as $1,000 to Mexico.

The price undercuts the rates charged by the dominant financial wire services, Western Union and Moneygram. The market leaders collect a $15 fee on a comparable wire transfer of up to $300 and charge as much as $50 for sending $1,000 to Mexico. In some cases, Moneygram charges a flat fee of $15 for any amount.

Mexicans living in the United States wire an estimated $8 billion annually to friends and relatives back home.

Wells, the nation's fifth-largest bank, intends to test its new wire service in a Phoenix, Ariz., branch and seven Texas branches under a pilot program that will begin before April.

The San Francisco-based bank eventually plans to offer the wire transfer service — operated as a joint venture with Grupo Financiero Bancomer SA, Mexico's second-largest bank — in all 3,000 of its branches located in 23 states, including Utah.

The service represents Wells' latest offering aimed at Hispanic consumers, particularly Mexican-born immigrants without bank accounts.

"It's an extremely attractive market," said Bob Byrne, Wells' director of divergent services. "We want to stay close to it by tailoring products that fit the market's needs."

To tap into the "unbanked" market of Hispanics, Wells in November began to recognize Mexican documents called "matriculas" as an acceptable form of identification. Mexican consulates issue matriculas to migrants lacking the conventional papers to establish residency in the United States.

Wells signed up 1,000 new customers using matriculas during the first few weeks of the program. Meanwhile, Wells has drawn fire from anti-immigrant activists who believe the bank's loosened identification requirements will encourage more Mexicans to illegally cross the border.

Wells also has been heavily promoting another long-running program, called Intercuenta, that lets customers send money to Mexico through account transfers completed on the Internet or automated teller machines.

The new Mexican wire service will be offered to nonaccountholders, as well as current Wells customers.

Wells' sharper focus on Hispanics reflects the market's widening appeal.

The Hispanic population in the United States increased 58 percent during the 1990s, according to census data. The disposable income of Hispanics jumped 118 percent during the 1990s to $452 billion in 2001, according to a study by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.

Disposable income among non-Hispanics rose by 68 percent during the same period, the study said.

By drawing more Hispanic noncustomers into its branches, Wells is betting it will be able to persuade them to open an account and then sell them a variety of other financial services products, said industry analyst Joseph Morford of RBC Dain Rauscher.

Wells' success at cross-selling products to its existing customers is a major reason its revenues have been growing at a faster clip than most other big banks during the last few years, Morford said.

With its expansion into the wire service business, Wells will be competing against two well-established services with substantially more outlets scattered in stores around the country. Western Union, owned by Minneapolis-based First Data Corp., has been wiring money to Mexico for more than 100 years.

Western Union is closely watching Wells' new wire service but has no immediate plans to change its prices, said spokesman Pete Ziverts.

"Our service has stood the test of time," he said. "We believe we can compete on the overall convenience and customer service that we offer."