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M-Via, a young mobile phone payment service that lets you send or receive money internationally on any type of phone — even if you and your recipients don’t have bank accounts — has raised $5 million in debt financing, according to a filing with the SEC.

Systems like m-Via’s are becoming increasingly important in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Latin America, where most people’s primary screens, and connections to the internet, are their phones. More and more capabilities need to be added to the most affordable, perfunctory handsets, to allow people to conduct basic life tasks and transactions.

Just like with Western Union, m-Via says you can use its product no matter who you are, how much money you have, or what the status of your credit history is. Aptly, m-Via’s tagline is “Sending cash, now as easy as making a call,” or, alternatively, “Think PayPal for the unbanked with viral distribution via SMS.”

Considering that $300 billion is transferred from the U.S. to people in other countries, and that 175 million unbanked migrants in the U.S. use money transfer services like Western Union to help support recipients elsewhere, the Sunnyvale, Calif. company seems to have stumbled on a big, untapped market.

Right now, secure transactions can be initiated by senders placing a call to a live operator, sending a text message or accessing a web page on a mobile browser. The sender drops off the cash he or she wants to send at the local wireless retailer. The recipient can forward the money on from there, retrieve the cash at an ATM, or get it at a local retailer (an m-Via partner or “hot spot”) without needing a debit card.

Because most senders using the service will probably be sending money on a regular basis, they can choose to pay a monthly fee to send an unlimited amount. This ends up costing much less than other money transfer services, which skim off fees up to $20 per transaction, m-Via says.

Right now, the startup is focusing on transactions between Mexico and the U.S. — its web site comes in both English and Spanish. It operates 95 “hot spots” in California right now, and is launching new ones in Texas, Arizona, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey this year. Eventually, it will turn its attention to India, China and the Philippines, where people receive hundreds of millions every year from family members or friends in the U.S.

M-Via has representatives from RRE Ventures and Windsor Media on its board of directors.


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