The Western Union Company is an American worldwide financial services and communications company, headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Until it discontinued the service in 2006, Western Union was the leading American company in the business of transmitting telegrams.
S&P 500 Component
|Predecessor||Deseret Telegraph Company|
|Founded||1851 in Rochester, New York, United States|
|Headquarters||Denver, Colorado, United States|
|Jack M. Greenberg|
(President and CEO)
|Revenue||US$5.6 billion (2018)|
|US$1.1 billion (2018)|
|US$851.9 million (2018)|
|Total assets||US$9 billion (2018)|
|Total equity||US$−309.8 million (2018)|
Number of employees
Western Union has several divisions, with products such as person-to-person money transfer, money orders, business payments, and commercial services. The company offered standard "Cablegrams", as well as Candygrams, Dollygrams, and Melodygrams.
Western Union regards its founding year as 1851. That year the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was organized in Rochester, New York, by Samuel L. Selden, Hiram Sibley, and others, with the goal of creating one great telegraph system with unified and efficient operations. Meanwhile, Ezra Cornell had bought back one of his bankrupt companies and renamed it the New York & Western Union Telegraph Company. Originally fierce competitors, by 1856 both groups were convinced that consolidation was their only alternative for progress. The merged company was named the Western Union Telegraph Company at Cornell's insistence, and Western Union was born.
Western Union bought smaller companies rapidly, and by 1860 its lines reached from the East Coast to the Mississippi River, and from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River. In 1861 it opened the first transcontinental telegraph. In 1865 it formed the Russian–American Telegraph in an attempt to link America to Europe, via Alaska, into Siberia, to Moscow - a project abandoned in 1867 following the successful laying of a transatlantic cable in 1866.
The company had phenomenal growth during the next few years. Under the leadership of presidents Jeptha Wade and William Orton its capitalization rose from $385,700 in 1858 to $41 million in 1876. It was top-heavy with stock issues, and faced growing competition from several firms, especially the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company — itself taken over by financier Jay Gould in 1875.:196–201 In 1881 Gould took control of Western Union.
Western Union introduced the first stock ticker in 1866, and a standardized time service in 1870. The next year, 1871, the company introduced its money transfer service, based on its extensive telegraph network. In 1879, Western Union left the telephone business, settling a patent lawsuit with Bell Telephone Company. As the telephone replaced the telegraph, money transfer became its primary business.
When the Dow Jones Railroad Average stock market index for the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) was created in 1884, Western Union was one of the original eleven companies to be included. By 1900, Western Union operated a million miles of telegraph lines and two international undersea cables.
The company continued to grow, acquiring more than 500 smaller competitors. Its monopoly power was almost complete in 1943 when it bought Postal Telegraph, Inc., its chief rival.
In 1914, Western Union offered the first charge card for consumers. In 1923 it introduced teletypewriters to link its branches. Singing telegrams followed in 1933, intercity fax in 1935, and commercial intercity microwave communications in 1943. In 1958, it began offering Telex service to customers in New York City. In honor of Valentine's Day 1959, Western Union introduced the Candygram, a box of chocolates accompanying a telegram that was featured in a commercial with the rotund Don Wilson. On the 1970s version of Let's Make a Deal, hosted by Monty Hall, Western Union Candygrams (with a cash message inside) were offered to contestants as a prize during a deal. In 1964, Western Union initiated a transcontinental microwave system to replace land lines.
During World War II, families with men in military service dreaded the arrival of a Western Union messenger, who could be carrying a death notification.
Western Union became the first American telecommunications corporation to maintain its own fleet of geosynchronous communications satellites, starting in 1974. The fleet of satellites, called Westar, carried communications within the Western Union company for telegram and mailgram message data to Western Union bureaus nationwide. It also handled traffic for its Telex and TWX ("Telex II") services. The Westar satellites' transponders were also leased by other companies for relaying video, voice, data, and facsimile (fax) transmissions.
In 1963, Western Union organized its international cable system properties and its right-of-way for connecting international telegraph lines into a separate company called Western Union International (WUI), which it divested that year to American Securities. In 1967 WUI issued an IPO. In 1979 it was sold to Xerox for $207 million in stock. Xerox sold WUI in 1981 for $185 million in cash to MCI Communicationsm which renamed it MCI International and moved its headquarters from New York City to Rye Brook, New York.
In the 1970s, WUI installed and leased to the US Department of Defense (DOD) dedicated 50-Kbps high-speed telecommunications facilities between the continental US and Hawaii, Germany and the UK to provide a test bed for the DOD's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). This test bed provided ARPA with a proof of concept for the technology of packet switching which later became the Internet.
In 1976, Western Union partnered with E. F. Hutton & Co..
Because of declining profits and mounting debts, Western Union began to divest itself of telecommunications-based assets in the early 1980s. Because of deregulation at the time, Western Union began sending money outside the country, re-inventing itself as "The fastest way to send money worldwide" and expanding its agent locations internationally.
In 1987, Investor Bennett S. LeBow acquired control of Western Union through an outside of chapter 11 process that was a complex leveraged recapitalization. The transaction was backed by a total of $900 million in high-yield bonds and preferred stock underwritten by Michael Milken's group at Drexel Burnham Lambert as part of an exchange offer. LeBow installed Robert J. Amman as President and CEO who led a complete strategic, operational and balance sheet restructuring of the company over the next six years.
Amman executed a strategy of redirecting Western Union from being an asset-based provider of communications services, with a money transfer business as a large but less important part of the business, into being a provider of consumer-based money transfer financial services. Thus, Amman ran the company as two separate companies. One business consisted of the money transfer business, which was funded and operated to take advantage of the significant growth opportunity. The second unit consisted of all the non-strategic communications assets such as the long-distance analog voice network, satellite business and undersea cable assets. In the 3-year period through 1990 Amman was supported by Robert A. Schriesheim, also installed by LeBow, as a special advisor who oversaw the divestiture of the four non-strategic telecommunications assets for about $280 million.
The official name of the corporation was changed to New Valley Corporation in 1991, just in time for that entity to seek bankruptcy protection as part of Amman's strategy to eliminate the overleveraged balance sheet while continuing to grow the money transfer business. The name change was used to shield the Western Union name from being dragged through the proceedings (and the resulting bad PR). Under the day to day leadership of Amman and the backing of LeBow, the company's value increased dramatically through its years operating under chapter 11.
Following various restructurings that included negotiations with Carl Icahn who became a large bond holder, Amman engineered the sale of New Valley in a bankruptcy auction to First Financial Management Corporation in 1994 for $1.2 billion where he became vice chairman, and a year later merged with First Data Corporation in a $6 billion transaction. On January 26, 2006, First Data Corporation announced plans to spin off Western Union as an independent publicly-traded company. Western Union's focus would remain money transfers. The next day Western Union announced that it would cease offering telegram transmission and delivery, the product most associated with the company throughout its history. This was not the original Western Union telegram service, but a new service of First Data under the Western Union banner; the original telegram service was sold off after New Valley Corporation's bankruptcy and now operates as iTelegram.
The spin off was completed September 29, 2006 and Western Union became an independent publicly traded company again.
Involvement in early computer networking
Western Union telegrams were transmitted through a store and forward message switching system. Early versions were manual telegraph systems. Later systems using teleprinters were semi-automatic, using punched paper tape to receive, store, and retransmit messages. Plan 55-A, Western Union's last paper tape based switching system (1948–1976), was fully automatic, with automatic routing.
Western Union was a prime contractor in the Automatic Digital Network (AUTODIN) program. AUTODIN, a military application for communication, was first developed in the 1960s and became the precursor to the modern Internet in the 1990s. The Defense Message System (DMS) replaced AUTODIN in 2000.
AUTODIN, originally named "ComLogNet", was a reliable service that operated at 99.99% availability, using mechanical punched card readers and tab machines to send and receive data over leased lines. During the peak operation of AUTODIN, the US portion of the network handled 20 million messages a month. Western Union failed in its attempts to engineer a replacement (AUTODIN II), leading to the development of an acceptable packet-switched network by BBN (the developer of the ARPANET) which became the foundation of today's Internet. AUTODIN service ceased in 2000, years after it had become obsolete.
A related innovation that came from AUTODIN was Western Union's computer based EasyLink service. This system allowed one of the first marketable email systems for non-government users. The system allowed the same message to be sent simultaneously to multiple recipients via email, fax, mailgram, or telex services as well as allowing messages to be sent from the integrated formats. With the service, users could also perform research utilizing its InfoLink application. EasyLink was spun off as a separate company and is now part of OpenText.
End of telegrams
As of February 2006, the Western Union website showed this notice:
"Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative."
This ended the era of telegrams which began in 1851 with the founding of the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, and which spanned 155 years of continuous service. Western Union reported that telegrams sent had fallen to a total of 20,000 a year, because of competition from other communication services such as email. Employees were informed of the decision in mid-January.
In May 2009, Western Union announced its plan to acquire Canada-based Custom House from Peter Gustavson. The deal closed in September 2009 for a purchase price of US$371 million. This acquisition led the company to be re-branded as Western Union Business Solutions. Custom House and its subsidiary XE.com were sold to Euronet Worldwide in 2015 and operate under its HiFX brand.
In January 2011, Western Union acquired Angelo Costa, a group active in money transfer and services to immigrants. Angelo Costa has a network of 7,500 points of sale throughout Europe. The agreement was signed for US$200 million.
In July 2011, Western Union acquired Travelex's Global Business Payments division for £606 million.
In October 2011, Western Union completed the acquisition of Finint S.r.l., one of Western Union's leading money transfer network agents in Europe, with more than 10,000 subagent locations across Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
In May 2015, rumors emerged over a proposed merger of Western Union and competitor MoneyGram, at a time when both companies’ revenue were declining. Western Union denied this was the case. In January 2017, MoneyGram was instead acquired unsuccessfully by Ant Financial, Alibaba’s financial technology firm, for $880 million.
Western Union's website, westernunion.com, allows users to send and receive funds to others, pay bills, locate Western Union locations, track transfers, and to purchase Western Union NetSpend gift cards. The website also attempts to spread fraud awareness using videos, articles, and quizzes to do so.
As the Internet became an arena for commerce at the turn of the millennium, Western Union started its online services. BidPay was renamed "Western Union Auction Payments" in 2004 before being renamed back to BidPay. BidPay ceased operations on December 31, 2005, and was purchased for US$1.8 million in March 2006 by CyberSource Corp. who announced their intention to re-launch BidPay. BidPay was later discontinued by CyberSource effective December 31, 2007.
Western Union Mobile
In October 2007, Western Union announced plans to introduce a mobile money-transfer service with the GSM Association, a global trade association representing more than 700 mobile operators in 218 countries and covering 2.5 billion mobile subscribers.
The proliferation of mobile phones in developed and developing economies provides a widely accessible consumer device capable of delivering mobile financial services ranging from text notifications associated with Western Union cash delivery services to phone-based remittance options. Western Union's mobile money transfer service offering will connect its core money-transfer platform to m-bank or m-wallet platforms provided by mobile operators and/or locally regulated financial institutions.
Western Union Connect
The company launched the Western Union Connect service in October 2015, following partnership agreements with major instant messaging apps WeChat and Viber. The partnership allows users of WeChat to send up to $100 to China, the US and 200 other countries, while Viber users can send up to $100 for $3.99 plus exchange rate fees, with that fixed fee increasing the more money is sent up a limit of $499.
Sending and receiving funds
Money can be sent online or in person at Western Union agent locations. Cash can be collected in person at any other Western Union agent location worldwide by providing the 10-digit MTCN (Money Transfer Control Number) and identification. In some cases, a secret question and answer can be used instead of identification.
Along with satellite telecommunications, Western Union was also active in other forms of telecommunication services:
- Common carrier terrestrial microwave networks
- Business communications networks such as Telex and TWX, which was acquired from AT&T Corporation and renamed Telex II by Western Union
- Landline-based leased voice and data communication circuits
- Long distance telephone service
- Airfone air-ground radiotelephone service from 1981 to 1986
- Cellular phone service for a short time in the early 1980s (the phones were made by two-way radio manufacturer E. F. Johnson Company)
Most of these services were discontinued by Western Union in the late 1980s due to a lack of profitability, with the company's divisions providing said services being divested and sold to other companies, such as the 1988 sale of WU's satellite fleet and services to Hughes Space and Communications, and the sale of WU's Airfone service to GTE in 1986.
Western Union was a major shirt-sponsor of the Sydney Roosters NRL team from 2002–2003. The company still sponsors the team, but not as a shirt-sponsor. Globally Western Union sponsors numerous community events that help support the diaspora communities that use the global Money Transfer service. They also sponsored numerous WWE and WCW pay-per-view events such as the No Way Out 1998 and Slamboree 2000. They sponsored UEFA Europa League from 2012 until 2015.
Liverpool F.C. announced on August 9, 2017 that Western Union would become their first ever sleeve sponsors, from the start of the 2017–18 Season. They signed a £25m deal for 5 years as Liverpool's sleeve sponsor.
Scam industry and money laundering
Western Union advises its customers not to send money to someone that they have never met in person. Despite its efforts in increasing customers' awareness of the issue, Western Union is used for internet fraud by scammers.
Western Union has been required to maintain records of payout locations of the individuals who may be laundering the money, though this information may be obtained only through the use of a subpoena. Hence advance-fee fraud and romance scammers continue to receive funds via Western Union confident in the knowledge that money lost to overseas scammers is almost always unrecoverable. For this reason, it is banned as a medium of payment through eBay, and discouraged on other online auction websites.
Western Union admitted to allowing wire fraud in January 2017 and agreed to pay $586m, for turning a blind eye as criminals used its service for advance fee fraud. Scammers engaging in various 419 advance fee scams including offering fake job offers and lottery prizes, were able to process transactions using Western Union money transfer, mainly by giving the agents a share of the earnings from their scams. Western Union failed to investigate hundreds of thousands of complaints that were filed by victims.
Money laundering and terrorist financing
The Central Bank of Ireland reprimanded and fined Western Union €1.75m in May 2015 because of failures in anti money laundering practices which could have left the firm's payment services open to being used for money laundering and/or terrorist financing saying that they were concerned that Western Union "failed to have in place sufficiently robust systems and procedures to train agents, to monitor and identify suspicious activity in respect of smaller transactions, and to maintain appropriate records" and "the splitting of payments into many separate smaller payments is a common method used to launder money. Similarly, terrorist financing is often carried out by small payment transfers."
Western Union agents also allowed Chinese immigrants to the US to use the service to send hundreds of millions of dollars, by sending the amounts in smaller increments to avoid transfer reporting requirements, to pay human smugglers.
In 2017, Western Union admitted to anti-money laundering and consumer fraud violations and agreed to pay $586 million in a settlement with the Department of Justice. Among other charges, the Justice Department showed that Western Union was complicit in creating an ecosystem where criminals were able to engage in consumer fraud and human trafficking. The charges were dismissed in March 2020.
In 2018, Western Union was fined $60 million by the New York State Department of Financial Services. The press release accompanying the fine stated that, "Western Union executives put profits ahead of the company’s responsibilities to detect and prevent money laundering and fraud, by choosing to maintain relationships with and failing to discipline obviously suspect, but highly profitable, agents."
On May 29, 2019, Western Union announced the departure of a company executive, Odilon Almeida, who served as executive vice president and president of Global Money Transfer. In 2012, Stewart Stockdale, who had the same position as Almeida, left the company in a similar situation. This marked the second time, in less than a decade that an executive at Western Union left with Ersek alone at the helm.
Connection to military intelligence
The book "The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11" alleged that Western Union provided United States military intelligence with personal information.
Western Union has been accused of engaging in anti-competitive behavior in Africa as a result of a lack of competition on the continent. According to a report by the Overseas Development Institute, this allows Western Union to artificially inflate its fees for money transfers, charging what has been called an “Africa charge” of 8% consistently “applied across countries regardless of the size of the market, regulatory costs or market risk.” However, the fees can be as high as 10% or more, depending on the region. Africa's remittance market remains the most expensive in the world, and the region is estimated to incur excess costs of $1.4 billion to $2.3 billion per year as a result of these high remittance fees.
The company has also been criticized for its use of exclusivity agreements with banks in countries that receive remittances, restricting competition and harming the consumer, by requiring the consumer to conduct transactions via nominated banks. This also allows for the imposition of above-average transaction fees.
In February 2016, Western Union was questioned by the EU antitrust regulator over its network of agents to establish whether the company colluded with banks to push out smaller rivals from the money transfer market.
- 60 Hudson Street – Former headquarters
- 92 Code
- Pangram – Used by WU to test teleprinters.
- Pennsylvania v. New York — Question before the U.S. Supreme Court: when Western Union Money orders are supposed to escheat to the state if not fully redeemed, what state is to get the money?
- Western Union, 1939 schooner chartered by Western Union Telegraph Company, used in the film Amistad as a portrayal of the slave ship La Amistad
- Western Union splice
- Western Union Telegraph Building – Former headquarters
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- "Telephone Trust to Dissolve," The New York Times pg. 1, Saturday, December 20, 1913.
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The auction giant will protect customers by BANNING the use of online money transfers. Now eBay will bring in the ban – backed by Western Union and already in force in the US – from January 15 in the UK. It will tell punters to use secure payment systems that verify the identity of users, and which can track both buyers' and sellers' accounts.
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Western Union had fulfilled its obligations under the DPA and the government has filed a motion to dismiss the information, which the court granted today.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Western Union.|
- Business data for Western Union:
- Telegram for America, an industrial film showing Western Union telegram handling (1956)
- Western Union Telegram Collection at the University of Mississippi Libraries
- Image of striking Western Union employees picketing an office in Los Angeles, California, 1971. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive (Collection 1429). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles