If you need to send money to a friend, Venmo makes life incredibly easy. The peer-to-peer payment app is a great tool to make sure everyone gets you back for pizza and beer. Unfortunately, it also gives scammers a great opportunity, because it’s not set up to help people get their money back when fraud occurs.
What’s convenient for giving your roommate rent money isn’t the best system for making deals with people you don’t know. Venmo’s user agreement contains a line that’s basically a “Get Out of Helping Customers” card: “Business, commercial, or merchant transactions may not be conducted using personal accounts.” That means Venmo doesn’t have to do shit if you get ripped off trying to sell someone something, since you weren’t supposed to be selling stuff with the app anyways.
Slate’s Alison Griswold spoke with people who lost money to scammy Venmo transactions, mostly through trying to sell basketball tickets. They’d receive money from someone, send them the tickets, and then discover that the transaction had been reversed before the money made it to their bank accounts.
This isn’t a fluke. Scammers are taking advantage of the way Venmo is set up. As Griswold explains, people put themselves at risk when they use Venmo:
They don’t understand that Venmo isn’t PayPal and doesn’t offer the same kind of buyer and seller protections. They don’t realize that getting an on-screen notification from Venmo about a transaction, with its cheery green plus sign, isn’t the same as actually receiving those funds from the sender. And they don’t know that if the underlying transaction gets tangled up in fraud, they could be the ones eating the cost when Venmo eventually unwinds it.
Buying and selling stuff to strangers you meet over the internet always carries a risk of fraud. You don’t know these people. But, of course, some ways of doing transactions are smarter than others. Waiting until a payment goes through to give someone what you’re selling is a good safeguard, since you know they’ve fulfilled the end of the bargain.
The way Venmo is set up, seeing the symbols that show a transfer has gone through isn’t enough. You’ll need to verify with your bank, since the green plus sign does not necessarily mean the funds are in your account. If someone decides to reverse the transaction in that sweet spot where you think the money is in your account but it hasn’t actually gone through and you don’t check to see that the money really made it in, you have no course of action to get the money you lost—at least not a course of action where Venmo will help.
So should you stop using Venmo? No, not with your friends, not for small amounts of money. But the lack of safeguards means you should think twice about larger money exchanges between friends, and avoid using the app with strangers altogether.