A college student telephones his parents for cash to cover an overdrawn check. A friend arrested in the dead of night calls for help in scraping up bail money.
Within minutes, if you're willing to pay the price, you can wire financial aid just as corporate deal-makers routinely transfer billions of dollars halfway around the world.
Western Union Corp. remains the solid leader in this growing consumer money-transfer business, although rivals are giving it a run for the money.
American Express Co., for example, introduced its MoneyGram service about 1 1/2 years ago. Smaller companies serve specific regions or groups ranging from gamblers to truckers.
'Idea of Speed'
Commercial banks also wire money, and even the U.S. Postal Service is considering a high-speed money order service.
"It's the whole idea of speed. Consumers rely more and more on getting things done faster," said Jay Giesen, a vice president of marketing at the American Express Information Services Co. subsidiary. "The consumer market has yet to be fully tapped."
Trying to do just that, American Express just began its first advertising blitz for the service recently. Like the company's pitch for traveler's checks, the MoneyGram ads appeal to people's fears.
One shows a broke American teen-ager stranded on the steps of a European church on a cold, stormy night. Another shows an elderly couple evidently distraught over an unexpected financial hardship. A third shows a mother and daughter stuck at a remote bus station.
Western Union, which has been in the money-transfer business since 1871, is countering with a beefed-up ad campaign that includes a TV spot showing a succession of mothers complaining about their children's spending habits. The light-hearted ad includes a new toll-free number for sending money by phone.
All that competition could spell good news for harried, bargain-hunting consumers who need to send or receive cash fast.
The cheapest and easiest way to gain access to emergency cash is through the bank automated teller machine network, where fees on transactions range from 10 cents to $3. Many are free.
But one major problem with this system is that daily cash withdrawals usually are limited to $200 to $500. Another drawback is that not everyone has an automated bank card.
"There are still many households in this country that don't even have checking accounts," said Western Union spokesman Warren R. Bechtel.
For them, the main way to send fast emergency cash, albeit expensive, is via the transmission service. Many Western Union and American Express agents are open 24 hours; their telephone numbers are available in the yellow pages.
Only Western Union allows customers to send money over the telephone, although it tacks on an extra finance charge. American Express says it has no finance charge, but all transactions must be done in person.
Western Union has a computerized network of 13,500 agents nationwide, including many all-night convenience stores, supermarkets, hardware stores and hotels. American Express has nearly 7,000 agents.
Western Union says it wired around $3 billion last year, with the average transaction at $300. American Express doesn't release these figures but says its volume has risen steadily.
Both companies promise money will be available domestically at the receiving agent within 15 minutes. MoneyGram, however, claims to offer more flexibility about where the money can be picked up.
For these conveniences you must pay the price. Western Union and American Express have graduated fee scales, where the more you send the less you pay percentage-wise. But be careful: In some cases if you send a penny over the limit you'll end up in the next bracket and pay a substantially higher fee.
For instance, it costs $12 to send up to $50 via Western Union, or 24% of the principal amount. The fee rises to $14 for sending $50.01 to $100; to $21 for $101.01 to $200; and to $27 for $300.01 to $400. The fee levels off at $3,000, costing $105, or 3.5% of the principal amount. Above that each additional $500 or fraction thereof costs $20. Western Union says it doesn't limit the amount of money that can be sent.
For the MoneyGram service, fees range from $9 for sending up to $50, or 18% of the principal amount, to $330 for sending a maximum $10,000.
Wiring money from bank to bank is often much cheaper, with the sending bank charging from $10 to $20, but this service is only available during banking hours.