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The Next Big Thing in U.S. banking may be mobile person-to-person money transfers

What if you could send money to that friend who loaned you $20 last week by using your mobile phone rather than having to go through the trouble of trekking to the ATM or mailing a check? All you'd need would be your buddy's e-mail address or cell number—and presto.

Folks in Japan and Europe can already do that. Soon Americans will, too. Studies show that U.S. consumers, particularly the younger set, have embraced the convenience of online shopping and e-banking and are now ready to move to the next frontier: person-to-person mobile payments. A recent poll by Mercatus, a financial consulting firm, showed that the proportion of people ages 26 to 34 who had used a cell phone to buy goods or pay for a product or service had doubled, to 14%, in the past year. "We are at the tipping point," says Mercatus managing partner Robert Hedges.

That's why a host of banks and financial companies are gearing up to add person-to-person payments to their existing mobile and online banking platforms. PNC Financial Services (PNC), Bank of the West, and the Boeing Employees' Credit Union have teamed up with CashEdge, an outfit that already processes more than $50 billion a year in transactions among financial institutions, with plans to launch services in early 2010. Fiserv (FISV), a technology company that handles bill payments for 3,100 financial institutions, is marketing a similar service. MasterCard (MA) is working with Obopay, a mobile payment startup with funding from Nokia (NOK), while Visa (V) has been testing a service with U.S. Bancorp (USB). "Payment habits change pretty slowly, but Generation Y expects this," says Thomas S. Kunz, director of payments and e-business at PNC Financial.

While the banks are only now waking to the potential of person-to-person payments, PayPal (EBAY) has built its business on them. The company, acquired by eBay in 2002, boasts more than 78 million active account holders worldwide and introduced a service earlier this year that allows users to make transfers over a cell phone. Now it is teaming up with banks to offer the same service. FIS (FIS), a tech outfit that counts 14,000 financial institutions as clients, announced on Nov. 3 that it plans to integrate PayPal's technology into its online banking platform. "We found out that [banks] want to collaborate more than ever," says PayPal President Scott Thompson.

HACKER HEAVEN?

Here's how these digital cash transfers work. Sign up for a service through your bank or another provider. Enter an e-mail address or phone number to send money to anyone you know. Your bank's person-to-person payment system will be integrated with your regular online banking, and the funds will be debited from your account. At the other end, the recipient may get the cash deposited directly into an account or have it posted to an existing credit card or a prepaid card. Mostly likely, banks will make money by charging senders a nominal fee (25 cents, say, for a domestic transfer).

What about security, you ask? "Banking on the mobile phone is relatively safe," says Robert Vamosi, an analyst on security, risk, and fraud at Javelin Strategy & Research. In fact, says Vamosi, mobile banking is currently more secure than online banking because cellular networks are tough to hack into.

With many of these new offers set to launch next year, the big question is who will gain critical mass quickly. Says Jim Bruene, editor of trade publication Online Banking Report: "Whoever can make mobile payments as simple as sending a text message is going to win."

Feldman is an associate editor with BusinessWeek in New York.

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