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More than 35 million adult Americans (about 10% of the population, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp) either don’t have a bank account or have an active one that’s gathering cobwebs. But financial services companies aren’t giving up on the unbanked – not by a longshot.

Why are banks rushing after customers who don’t want the attention? With cash scarce and money tight, banks figure that it’s better to dig up new customers rather than chase existing ones at other financial institutions.

That’s the supply side – the demand side is more difficult. After all, how do you reach those reluctant consumers who prefer a mattress to a bank account for their cash savings? The answer, banks maintain, is in technology. 

Case in point: Even people who don’t use bank accounts still use technology – especially cell phones. It could be college kids who don’t have a steady financial stream yet, or low-income folks who still own a cell phone. Studies show that 40% of Americans who earn less than $25,000 still have a cell phone (Source: Mintel).

Hence, the rolling out of new cell phone apps that enable consumers to make payments to other parties by phone. Pay Pal is getting to be a big player in this area, as is Obopay (customers there simply plug in their phone numbers and the amount of cash they want transmitted, up to $1,000 per week, and pay only a 10 cent fee for the service.)

Financial institutions and retail companies are also increasingly reliant on prepaid debit cards to gain visibility with the unbanked. Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT) has a prepaid Visa card where nonbank customers can pay $4.95 per month for the privilege of using the card to buy goods and services – even at other businesses. The card acts pretty much like a regular Visa card, with one big difference: consumers have to keep loading cash into the card via direct deposit or at a Wal-Mart location, to keep it in active use.

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Banks are also relying on some old-fashioned networking strategies to reach out to nonbank customers. According to a recent study by the FDIC, when asked to rank the best methods of garnering more nonbank consumers' business, bank survey respondents answered “teaching financial education sessions” as the most effective, followed by “financial outreach with other organizations” and “off-premise outreach visits”.

Says the FDIC study, “Almost all banks (98%) rank financial outreach with other organizations and outreach visits among the top three most effective strategies.”

The study also says that, since 2004, banks have stepped up efforts to get nonbank customers into branch bank offices – or at least onto their Web sites. According to the survey, roughly two-thirds (64%) of banks reported that they modified their retail operations to make them more appealing or convenient.

It’s a sign of the tough economic times when banks feel the need to reach out to consumers who have felt more comfortable an arms-length away.

As banks get more aggressive, expect that distance between banks and the “unbanked” to shorten considerably.

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