Filipinos funnel billions home through centers

Western Union-style remittance offices send money quickly

September 24, 2001|By Katrice Franklin | Katrice Franklin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. — VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.- It looks like a bank. Keeps hours like a bank. Has plastic flowers and tellers like a bank. Even has bulletproof glass windows.

But Fitz Dasal doesn't do his banking there. It's where he comes when he needs to send money home to the Philippines.

Like many local Filipinos, Dasal uses a rapid remittance center- a Western Union-style office - which specializes exclusively in sending money to the Philippines.

"How much are you sending?" Alice Malubag asked from behind the counter of the Philippine National Bank Rapid Remittance Center in Kempsville, Va.

"My family needs $100," said Dasal.

Six hours

The money would be there in six hours.

Dasal calls the Filipinos' strong sense of taking care of family back home "the brotherly love."

It's led to a burgeoning industry of remittance centers throughout the country in areas with larger Filipino concentrations. Hampton Roads has about half a dozen such centers catering exclusively to Filipinos. Census figures show that half of the nearly 48,000 Filipinos in Virginia live in Hampton Roads. The area has the fourth-largest concentration of Filipinos outside California and Hawaii.

Last year, $8 billion was funneled through remittance centers to the Philippines from about 7 million Filipinos living around the world, said Patricia Paez, information and press officer for the Philippine Embassy in Washington. The giving has become the lifeline of the country, she said.

The PNB center, which opened four months ago, is the newest remittance center to open in Hampton Roads. The California-based company has expanded its remittance centers to 25 branches across the country and has plans to open three more by the end of the year.

So far, the Virginia Beach center has helped dozens of customers send as much as $180,000 to the Philippines in one month, branch manager Deliah Holland said. Customers drive from as far as North Carolina, she said.

"We're the new kid on the block," Holland said. "We've barely touched the market. We're slowly trying to get people to try us. "

They've already hooked Dasal, who recently drove 45 minutes to the Virginia Beach remittance center off of Indian River Road from Newport News two days in a row.

A friend told the Navy enlistee that the PNB was quick and cheap - exactly what his family in the Philippines needed. Dasal used to send money through a Newport News remittance center.

"My family called me yesterday and asked me to send money because my sister is in the hospital," Dasal said counting out $100. "They called again last night and asked if I could send more for pocket money for my brother-in-law who's going to Saudia Arabia."

Greeting in Tagalog

Dasal likes the laid-back atmosphere that most remittance centers offer. Customer service associates like Malubag and Rod Galang often greet clients in the native tongue of the Philippines - Tagalog - and take time to hear the stories of residents shipping money to loved ones.

Some send as much as $10,000 home for their relatives to buy land and houses, Malubag and Holland said. But most are everyday families who want to share their good fortune with friends and families in the Philippines.

Ricardo Parocha, 43, sends his in-laws money every month.

"We are blessed," Parocha of Kempsville said. "But my wife's family back home is not. So we send what we can. We have everything we need."

Utang na loob, or debt of gratitude, is embedded in the Filipino value system, said Araceli Suzara, director of Old Dominion University's Filipino American Cultural Center. It's the idea that one has done well in life because of others. So out of compassion, they must give back to those less fortunate.

"It's a value system the Philippine government depends on," Suzara said. "They count on the contributions of Filipino families working elsewhere."

The cultural trait keeps most local remittance centers jumping.

"People are sending every day," said Mila Malonzo, manager of Lucky Money, another Filipino rapid remittance center that opened two years ago in Virginia Beach. "Sometimes 25 to 35 people come in here."

Malonzo said Lucky Money plans to open offices in Norfolk and Northern Virginia within the next year. There are 87 Lucky Money branches throughout the country, including California, New Jersey, Seattle and Alaska.

On average, at least $100,000 is sent from the Virginia Beach center to the Philippines each month, she said.

Choices

"The service we receive is really good," said Parocha, putting his 2-year-old daughter on his lap while his wife filled out paperwork.

Do you want the money sent door-to-door or deposited in a relative's checking account? In dollars or Philippine pesos?

Most remittance centers offer such choices. For $6 to $14, depending on the amount of money sent and where in the Philippines it's going, customers receive guarantees that their money will arrive within six hours to three days.

Some remittance centers offer free deliveries if customers are sending more than $4,000. Others offer free services every few visits.

The customer service ploys are an attempt to grab a larger share of Hampton Roads' remittance market, Holland and Malonzo said. "We figure with ... three to four big competitors and several smaller ones, if we take 5 to 10 percent of the market, we're doing good," Holland said.

Holland and Malubag phone customers when they're offering specials. The latest is a raffle of three Sharp TVs to drum up business. Customers get to enter the raffle when they send money through the PNB.

Before he leaves, Dasal enters the raffle once more. The drive's been worth it. Who knows? He might win a TV. And his family will get their money within six hours.

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