Your daughter calls from college to say she needs $200 for textbooks — in the next 15 minutes, if you please. You need to reimburse a friend for movie tickets and don’t want the hassle of mailing a check. You owe your golfing buddy on a friendly wager, but there’s no ATM nearby.

No worry. If you have a cell phone — and who doesn’t these days? — just peck out a few numbers and the money will be delivered in seconds. Welcome to mobile payment, a person-to-person money transfer system.

PayPal, MasterCard, Amazon and several other companies have introduced new mobile payment services. And more are sure to follow as consumers discover the potential of the technology, says Beth Robertson, director of payments research at Javelin Strategy and Research, who recently authored a report assessing the future of account-to-account transfers.

“Mobile payments are just taking off in this country,” she says. “Right now, it’s almost impossible to project how popular they will become.”

Mobile payment is in part a descendant of technology developed a decade ago by PayPal to facilitate eBay transactions. Eventually, people began using the PayPal Web site to send money to friends and family members, especially those overseas.

In 2006, PayPal introduced PayPal Mobile with high hopes. Initially, few U.S. customers embraced it, partly because of fears about the security of mobile transactions. At the time, PayPal president Scott Thompson wondered whether Americans were ready to use phones to initiate transactions.

Last year, when other companies began eyeing the U.S. mobile market and smart phone applications became common, PayPal tried again. It entered into an alliance with S1 Corp., a developer of banking software, to market a P2P payment service through local banks, the first of which is Mercantile Bank of Michigan. That system, MercMobile P2P Payments service, is scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2010. The bank says its customers will be able to send money from a mobile phone to any PayPal user by entering the recipient’s e-mail address or phone number. If the recipient doesn’t have a PayPal account, he or she will be prompted to create one. The bank says it won’t charge to send or receive money, at least in the beginning. However, S1 and PayPal say they expect that other banks may levy a fee when the service rolls out later this year.

Hot on PayPal’s heels is Obopay, a 5-year-old California company backed in part by Nokia, the giant mobile phone maker. Obopay pioneered mobile money transfers in India, Africa and other countries where the telephone and Web infrastructure is poor and fewer people have access to conventional bank accounts. Recently it began making mobile P2P available in the U.S. After you sign up for an account on the company’s Web site and get a PIN, you use a text message, iPhone app or mobile Web browser to send cash to any mobile phone user. Recipients choose whether to put the money in their bank accounts or on a payment card.

MasterCard is using Obopay’s system as the underpinnings of its own branded mobile P2P service, MoneySend. Once you have set up a MoneySend account, you can dispatch cash via cell phone text message, a dedicated mobile phone application or the company’s Web site. Pre-registered recipients get a text alert the moment funds are credited to their account. Others get a text explaining how to go about retrieving their money. For the moment, all MoneySend accounts are linked to a prepaid MasterCard issued by The Bankcorp Bank of Wilmington, Del. However, MasterCard says other banks will sign up in 2010.

Other entrants in the mobile P2P game

CashEdge, a behind-the-scenes of electronic money transfer services, recently launched a product called POPmoney that lets owners of accounts at five participating banks send money to an e-mail address, mobile phone number or bank account.

Fiserv Inc., owner of the CheckFree bill paying service, says it is working with a number of banks to let individuals send money from their bank accounts to an e-mail address or mobile phone number. Payments will be deposited directly into the recipient’s bank account.

The potential 800-pound gorilla in the mobile P2P market might well be a company that almost every consumer is familiar with: Amazon. Millions of Americans already store their credit, debit and bank account information, e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers in the retailer’s database. Although the retailer has not promoted the service, the Amazon Payments Web site tells customers how to use their Amazon accounts to “send money to your friends and family.” In addition to initiating a payment from the Amazon site, you can easily zap cash from one cell phone to another using a service called Amazon TextPayMe. In either case, the funds are held in your Amazon account, and can be spent on merchandise, transferred to other people or deposited in your bank account.

At this rate, it’s just a matter of time before cell phone payments are as much a part of your financial life as online bill paying and cash machines.

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