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Citibank to Offer Money Transfers to Relatives in Vietnam


COSTA MESA — Citibank, the nation's largest bank, will soon begin a service for Vietnamese-Americans in California to transfer money directly for relatives living in Vietnam or for humanitarian purposes. The program, restricted to transfers of $300 per family every three months, is considered the first such service provided by a major U.S. bank since the end of the Vietnam War.

The Citibank program is scheduled for introduction in Southern California next month. It began last week at six branches in New York City and will be phased in during 1992 in other parts of the country with a large Vietnamese-American population, including Texas, Illinois and the District of Columbia, said Citibank spokeswoman Susan Weeks.

"It's nice to know that there's now an official channel to send some money to Vietnam," said Yen Do, editor of Westminster-based Nguoi Viet Daily News, one of the nation's largest Vietnamese-language newspapers. The publication has estimated that about $160 million of the more than $200 million transferred to Vietnam each year is sent from the United States.

California, with more than 280,000 residents of Vietnamese origin, has the largest population of Vietnamese immigrants in the United States, according to the 1990 Census Bureau report. At least half of them live in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The Citibank program comes just two months after Secretary of State James A. Baker III announced that the United States is ready to renew diplomatic and economic ties with Vietnam, provided that Hanoi can resolve the POW/MIA dispute and other humanitarian issues.

U.S. companies have been pressing Congress to lift trade sanctions against Vietnam. One of them is AT&T, which asked two congressional panels in June to help it re-establish direct telephone service to Vietnam. Also, a small group of U.S. business people in Hong Kong visited Vietnam on Dec. 14--the first U.S. government-sanctioned visit since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Before Citibank was granted a U.S. Treasury license for the Vietnam transfers, Vietnamese-Americans have used a third party to send money to relatives in their homeland, usually through couriers, informal channels or transfers through third-country banks, such as those in Canada and Hong Kong.

Because the Citibank transfers are restricted to $300 each quarter for humanitarian purposes and for supporting family members, the current methods for sending money are not likely to end.

Dr. Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce of Orange County, said he expects current underground operations to continue to thrive because "there's no limit to the amount of funds being sent to relatives" and no record of the money being sent.

Editor Do said a cultural desire for secrecy will also guarantee continued use of third-party transactions.

"Vietnamese Americans are uncomfortable about letting people know how much they send to relatives, because this is viewed as a very private family affair," he said. "If they use Citibank, this means the U.S. and Vietnamese governments can track the money, and this just wouldn't do for many families or businessmen."

However, Do estimated, Citibank's new service has the potential to tap about 50% of the existing money-transfer market.

Citibank has branch offices in Orange, Huntington Beach and Tustin, but none in the Little Saigon section of Westminster, where most of Orange County's 72,000 Vietnamese-Americans live. Citibank has nearly 200 branches in California, including about 60 in Southern California, said Weeks, the bank spokeswoman.

"We're considering ways of making this service available where we don't have a branch," she said. "We might look into a mail-in option."

Citibank customers will be able to transfer money directly from their checking accounts, while non-customers will have to pay cash for transfers, she said.

While normally charging $27.50 for international fund transfers, Citibank will add $2 as a service fee to its correspondent bank in Hanoi, the Bank for Foreign Trade of Vietnam.

Citibank's service fee, equal to 9.8% of $300, is considered reasonable, according to Dieu Le, president of Nguoi Viet Daily News. The average fee for transferring money through a third party is about 15% per $100, he said.

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