Aside from the transfer fees, Western Union and other similar services profit as they buy batches of currencies at a wholesale rate. The money-transfer companies do not disclose the spreads they benefit from when they set exchange rates.
“It’s a big profit center for these companies, borne on the backs of the people who can least afford it,” said Matthew Piers, a lawyer in Chicago, who successfully brought a lawsuit on behalf of Mexican immigrants against Western Union in 2000 that accused the company of misrepresenting exchange spreads.
Western Union did not admit or deny wrongdoing, but agreed to pay more than $400 million to settle the claims.
Referring to the money it makes off the spread, Western Union said in its 2012 annual filing, “we generate revenues based on the difference between the exchange rate set by us to the customer and the rate at which we or our agents are able to acquire currency.”
Western Union received $1.15 billion in so-called foreign-exchange revenue in 2011, up from $910.3 million in 2009.