Venmo To Users: If You Owe Us Money, We’re Coming For It (#GotBitcoin?)
The payments service is trying to curb its losses, but some users say Venmo is going after the wrong people. Venmo To Users: If You Owe Us Money, We’re Coming For It (#GotBitcoin?)
Venmo, the digital money-transfer service operated by PayPal Holdings PYPL +0.07% Inc., is ratcheting up pressure on users the company says owe it money for transactions that went awry.
In a bid to curb losses on its platform, Venmo is threatening to sic debt collectors on some users who carry negative balances in their accounts, according to customer-service emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Venmo also recently amended its user agreement to give itself the power to recover money its customers owe by seizing it from their other accounts at PayPal.
PayPal’s difficulties in trying to turn Venmo into a moneymaker show how banks and financial-technology companies are having a hard time making finance faster and more convenient for customers while also earning a profit.
Some recipients of the collection threats say Venmo is targeting the wrong people. Some users Venmo has gone after said they previously reported that the negative balances in question came after fraudsters took over their accounts or the users got duped into sending payments to swindlers. Customer-service emails showed Venmo notifying users it could refer them to a collection agency over amounts as high as $3,000 and as low as $7.
Venmo declined to specify how many times it told users it may send their debt to a collector or whether it followed through on those threats. In a typical email, Venmo tells delinquent users that by “not paying, you run the risk of being reported to a collection agency.”
A spokeswoman acknowledged Venmo updated its policy to give itself authority to seize customers’ money from their other PayPal accounts. “These changes, which have been a PayPal policy for a while, are a result of our efforts to drive policy consistency across platforms,” she said in an email.
In the past 18 months, PayPal rolled out more ways to try to generate revenue from Venmo, including allowing users to buy things online with the service and issuing Venmo debit cards. CEO Dan Schulman said on a call with analysts in January that Venmo was on pace to bring in more than $200 million in revenue in 2019.
But the bulk of the $62 billion in payment volume on Venmo last year came from money transfers. On many of those transactions, Venmo charges no fees but bears the cost to process them.
Individuals can connect the Venmo app to their credit cards, bank accounts or other funding sources and send money digitally with a few swipes. They don’t need to have money already loaded in their Venmo account to make a transfer.
The money shows up in the recipient’s Venmo account almost right away, though it can take a day or two for the funds to actually be removed from the sender’s bank account. If there are glitches in the interim, users can end up owing money to Venmo.
In December, Venmo added language to its user agreement to say that it may “engage in collection and other efforts to recover [money owed to Venmo] from you.” The updated terms and conditions, which went into effect in January, also said that if Venmo finds that users owe it money, the company can go after money held in their PayPal digital wallets or at PayPal’s Xoom remittance service.
Jordan Cole and his wife, Emily, had their Wells Fargo & Co. checking account linked to Venmo when they used the app in January to send $281 to a person on Craigslist for two tickets to a Justin Timberlake concert.
Mr. Cole, a photographer who lives in Denver, soon realized they had been scammed when the seller went silent and never delivered the tickets. He said he and his wife alerted Wells Fargo less than an hour later and Wells Fargo agreed to stop the payment from going through after the Coles paid a fee.
They tried to call Venmo as well, but the customer-service line was closed for the day. So they disconnected the Wells Fargo account from Venmo and called the Venmo hotline the following day, asking a representative to cancel the transaction before it went through.
Nevertheless, Mr. Cole said, Venmo sent the money to the person who scammed him. “Don’t worry, we covered you,” the company said in an email. Venmo also told the Coles they owed Venmo $281. When they hadn’t repaid Venmo about a month after the transfer, the company said they ran the risk of being reported to a collection agency.
A later email from a Venmo representative said the person the Coles paid for the tickets wasn’t an authorized Venmo merchant and that the company wasn’t able to retrieve the funds from him.
“We sympathize that you were a victim of a scam,” a Venmo employee wrote the Coles in an email in March. But “you do make these transactions at your own risk and Venmo is not liable or responsible for any loss that comes from violating our user agreement.”
“Is it worth your time to fight it or pay to make it go away?” Mr. Cole recalled thinking. “It’s such an easy threat to levy against a consumer… [and] an excellent tool to get money whether you’re in the wrong or right.”
After Mr. Cole emailed PayPal and Wells Fargo executives about his case and spoke to a Wall Street Journal reporter, Venmo dropped its demands. If he and his wife want to use Venmo again, the company said, they would have to reread and confirm its terms of service. They decided to delete the app instead.
“Venmo is designed for payments between friends and people who know and trust one another, and our User Agreement states that the platform should not be used to accept payment from (or send payment to) another user for a good or service,” the Venmo spokeswoman said in an email to the Journal.
Last year, following a spike in fraudulent transactions that pushed its operating losses above management’s expectations, Venmo disabled several popular features, the Journal reported in November. Those included the ability to send and receive money through the Venmo website and the ability to transfer funds instantly to a bank account for a fee. Instant transfers were later restored.
PayPal finance chief John Rainey said on the January conference call that Venmo had yet to be profitable and that he didn’t want to predict when it would break even.
Venmo’s Latest Effort To Turn A Profit: Credit Cards
Digital payments company goes old-school in attempt to squeeze more revenue from large but not lucrative user base.
Venmo’s latest gambit to profit off its massive but still-not-lucrative user base involves a decidedly old-school idea: credit cards.
Executives at the digital payments company have been meeting with banks since late last year to discuss issuing a Venmo-branded credit card, people familiar with the matter said. The company, owned by PayPal Holdings Inc., is close to selecting Synchrony Financial as its credit-card issuer and is hoping to announce the card this year, one of the people said.
Rewards and other potential features of the planned card are still being discussed, the people said.
Venmo, which offers a mobile money-transfer app, is the latest technology company to explore entering the credit-card business as a way to boost revenue and consumer engagement. Companies such as PayPal, once considered a competitor to card networks and banks, are increasingly joining with them instead.
Venmo is one of the relatively few financial apps to earn widespread adoption—to the point where its brand name is used as a verb. More than 27 million users are expected to make a Venmo payment from their smartphones in 2019, according to research firm eMarketer.
Despite its popularity, Venmo has been bleeding money for years. Most Venmo payments consist of money transfers between two people, transactions for which the company absorbs processing costs that it doesn’t typically pass on to customers. This year the money-transfer business is expected to report an estimated operating loss of $394 million, according to analysts at Nomura Holdings Inc.
In recent years, under PayPal Chief Executive Dan Schulman, Venmo has introduced a suite of new features designed to boost revenue. Users now can pay a 1% fee to move money instantly from their Venmo balances to their bank accounts. Millions of online businesses and some bricks-and-mortar merchants pay Venmo a fee to accept it as a payment method. Last year, Venmo started offering debit cards in a partnership with Mastercard Inc. and a separate bank.
Heading into 2019, those efforts were on pace to generate annual revenue exceeding $200 million, Mr. Schulman told analysts on a January conference call. But Venmo isn’t expected to break even for at least several quarters, Chief Financial Officer John Rainey said on the same call.
A Venmo credit card could help push Venmo into the black and help achieve a broader PayPal goal of increasing its market share at offline retailers.
Venmo is entering a crowded market as more technology companies develop credit cards to incentivize spending. Apple Inc. is working with Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to roll out a new line of credit cards later this year that would sync with users’ iPhones. American Express Co. recently began issuing Amazon.com Inc. credit cards for small businesses.
Airlines and other vendors that already offer credit cards are finding themselves competing for consumers who prefer using bank-labeled, general-purpose credit cards with generous rewards. Growth in issuance of both general-purpose and co-branded credit cards in the U.S. has slowed since 2017, according to Mercator Advisory Group.
With its credit card, Venmo hopes to squeeze more revenue from the many young consumers who use only its free service. Roughly one in five consumers between ages 20 and 24 surveyed by 451 Research last year said they had made a Venmo payment.
The Venmo discussions are separate from deals PayPal has already negotiated with Synchrony, which has offered PayPal credit cards since 2004. Last July, Synchrony acquired $7.6 billion of PayPal Credit loan balances made to finance online purchases.
Synchrony has added more digital card partners in recent years. The company—the largest U.S. store-credit-card issuer—counted Toys “R” Us as a partner until the retailer filed for bankruptcy, and lists JCPenney as one of its five largest retail-card partners.
Synchrony was dealt a major blow last year when Walmart Inc., one of its largest retail partners for roughly two decades, told Synchrony that Capital One Financial Corp. would become its new credit-card issuer.
Venmo Glitch Opens Window on War Between Banks, Fintech Firms
PNC customers are getting a front-row seat on the rivalry between the banking industry and financial technology companies.
Many of the Pittsburgh bank’s clients are having trouble connecting their accounts to their Venmo apps, cutting off access to PayPal Holdings Inc.’s popular mobile payment service.
When they have sought help, they have found the two companies blaming each other for the disruption.
PNC Financial Services Group suggested in tweets that customers switch to Zelle, a rival payment app that it and other big banks jointly operate.
Venmo countered by urging its users to tweet their complaints, suggesting they tweet: “Hey @PNCBank…Let me use the financial service apps I need!”
The skirmish is part of a war over access to customer financial data. Fintech companies—nonbank firms that use apps and other new technologies to provide financial services such as digital payments, loans and financial planning—say they need access to customers’ account information held by banks and other traditional financial companies. To protect their own turf, banks and brokerage firms have resisted.
Glitch Opens Window On War Between Banks, Fintech Firms
Fintech firms accuse banks of blocking their access to customers’ account information.At the center of the PNC-Venmo dispute is Plaid, a data aggregator that connects Venmo and thousands of other apps to financial institutions. When PNC upgraded its security systems, it prevented Plaid from accessing the sort of customer information—including account and routing numbers—it uses to facilitate online transactions.
Greg Curran, a PNC customer and the owner of an entertainment company near Philadelphia, said it took him five calls and several messages over two weeks to restore his Venmo service after it was abruptly disconnected from his bank account last month.
“It’s like the left hand doesn’t talk to the right hand,” said Mr. Curran, who frequently uses Venmo to receive payments from customers. “It was kind of a schoolyard fight between billion-dollar companies.”
Banks cite security concerns for their moves to limit fintech firms’ access to their customer data. PNC began blocking data aggregators such as Plaid from access to customers’ accounts and routing numbers after identifying “multiple different aggregators” attempting to circumvent the bank’s security protocol, bank executives say.
“When aggregators access account numbers, many store them indefinitely, often unbeknownst to customers. This puts customers and their money at risk,” said Karen Larrimer, PNC’s head of retail banking and chief customer officer. “We want to make sure we know who is setting up the account.”
Plaid says it had already worked with PNC to provide requested system updates. “Protecting consumers needs to be a joint priority, and we work with thousands of other banks to make sure their customers are never in this situation,” said John Pitts, Plaid’s head of policy and advocacy.
PayPal spokesman Justin Higgs said, “We also believe that customer choice and the ability to seamlessly use Venmo services is an important part of the daily lives of people around the country.” He added that Venmo shares a dedication to user security.
Fintech firms and banks have tried to find mutual ground for data sharing. Together, they formed a group called the Financial Data Exchange, which is working to promote the shift to a technology to replace a method known as screen scraping, used by many apps to access customers’ accounts by using their usernames and passwords.
Just last month, the Clearing House, a bank trade association, issued a model agreement to help banks and fintechs sign individual data access agreements.
But industry experts say online lenders sometimes face difficulty gaining access to customers’ bank account information needed to underwrite loans. Budgeting apps like Mint, run by Intuit Inc., have received complaints from users about having to renew links to financial firms repeatedly.
“It speaks to where banks are, specifically in the U.S., where customer data is largely still seen as proprietary to the banks,” said Stephen Greer, a banking analyst at Celent, a consulting firm. He expects the U.S. to eventually follow the European Union and other nations in shifting to the philosophy that “customer data is really customers’.’”
PNC executives said customers can still use Venmo by manually putting in their account information to bypass Plaid, a step that usually takes one to two days. The bank says it has asked Plaid and other aggregators to make changes to their own systems to meet its security requirements.
Ms. Larrimer said PNC hasn’t noticed “any significant amount of customers” affected by its dispute with Venmo. Two people familiar with the situation say nearly 200,000 PNC customers are potentially inconvenienced by the problem.
Even In A Pandemic, Venmo Tells Conned Customers To Pay Up
Some customers face a choice: Deal with debt collectors or pay a debt they say they don’t owe.
Venmo has fostered a compassionate public image during the pandemic, touting the popular payments app as a way to virtually tip out-of-work bartenders and give to hospitals.
Yet it has taken a harder line against users who ended up overdrawing their accounts. In some cases, it has threatened to dispatch debt collectors against victims of scams, according to emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and communications with 10 Venmo users.
Scams can leave victims with negative balances. In some cases, Venmo, a unit of PayPal Holdings Inc., PYPL 0.32% has told customers they owe it that money.
Venmo’s main competitor, Cash App, says it doesn’t report or threaten to report users with negative balances to debt collectors “under any circumstances.”
Venmo acknowledges that it uses collection agencies, but a spokeswoman said it has taken measures to “address situations where customers are experiencing any type of hardship related to the pandemic.”
That includes suspending for 30 days collections-related calls to customers who say they were affected by the economic fallout from the coronavirus. Venmo also agreed not to take funds from customers with negative balances who had their stimulus checks deposited directly into the app.
The pandemic has turbocharged digital payments. About $37 billion was transferred via Venmo in the second quarter, a 52% increase from the year before. The number of active Venmo users topped 60 million in July.
Venmo’s tactic of referring users to debt collectors isn’t new, but those wrangling with the company face a choice: possibly having their credit score damaged for years or paying debts they say they don’t owe. Their predicament is sharpened by a recession that has left many Americans struggling.
Rachel Karpen-King said she used Venmo in April to pay for what she believed was computer hardware and software for a new job at a publishing company. The so-called recruiters who interviewed Ms. Karpen-King sent her orientation paperwork and checks to cover the equipment costs, asking her to pay their preferred supplier for them via Venmo.
She found out she was being duped when she emailed an employee at the publishing company and was told the people she spoke with were impostors. Their checks turned out to be fake. Ms. Karpen-King asked her bank to halt the $2,500 in payments before the money left her account and notified Venmo about the scam, she said. Venmo had already advanced the money and told her by email that she was at risk of being reported to a collection agency.
“It felt so gross,” said Ms. Karpen-King, who was unemployed at the time and eventually had to dip into savings to pay off Venmo. “There’s nothing worse than knowing that you messed up and asking for help and they shut the door in your face.”
Venmo transactions appear instantaneous in the app, but it can actually take a day or more for the money to leave the sender’s bank account. Venmo often fronts the payment to the recipient, who can then send the money to others on Venmo or pay a small fee to transfer it to their bank account in a few minutes.
If scammers move the money to their bank account, or if a sender’s bank stops a transaction before it is settled, Venmo can be left holding the bag. That is one reason Venmo tells users to send money only to people they know. Venmo also says on its website that it can’t cancel a payment to an existing Venmo account.
Venmo usage initially decelerated during the pandemic because users didn’t need the app to split tabs at bars and restaurants. In response, the company started publicizing new uses. Customers could have their stimulus checks directly deposited into Venmo, and the company introduced a #VenmoItForward giveaway where it rewarded users who had posted about donating money.
“I would not underestimate how zealous the customers of Venmo are about living their financial life on the platform,” PayPal Chief Executive Dan Schulman said on a call with analysts in July.
Unlike many other financial firms, Venmo deactivated general customer-service telephone lines during the pandemic. Customers looking for help sometimes faced dayslong lags in email communication.
Raquel Arias was distraught when she couldn’t get anyone at Venmo on the phone in August. The company had emailed her teenage daughter, saying she owed $1,980 and could be reported to a collection agency. A Snapchat user posing as a friend asked for the money. Her daughter sent it over Venmo, though Ms. Arias froze her daughter’s checking account before Venmo could withdraw anything.
Venmo’s user agreement requires account holders to be at least 18 years old, but Ms. Arias says her daughter was able to open an account anyway without her knowledge. She thinks Venmo should do more to ensure minors stay off the platform.
“Can they sue a 16-year-old?” said Ms. Arias, who lives in Alamogordo, N.M. “I’m thinking now they’re going to come after me.”
The spokeswoman said Venmo “offers live phone support for certain specialized support needs” and live online chat support. She added that the company wouldn’t take legal action against Ms. Arias’s daughter but that it is required to close her account since she is underage.
PayPal doesn’t disclose the number of Venmo users who carry a negative balance or the amount it says they owe. Across PayPal, though, as of June 30, there were $221 million in negative customer balances that the company didn’t expect to be repaid, according to a securities filing. PayPal writes off as a loss any negative balances in the month that they become outstanding for 120 days.
Setareh Rafatirad has carried a negative $1,500 balance on her Venmo account since April 2019. In July, she received a phone call from SIMM Associates, a debt-collection agency working for Venmo. The representative said he would alert credit-reporting agencies that Ms. Rafatirad was delinquent unless she paid it off promptly, she said.
The transactions at issue occurred last year when Ms. Rafatirad, a university professor living in Vienna, Va., listed some furniture on Craigslist. A man mailed her a check for more than the agreed-upon price and asked her to send the surplus via Venmo to a mover he hired.
When Ms. Rafatirad learned the check was fraudulent, she called the police and froze her outgoing Venmo payment before the money left her bank account. Venmo had already advanced the payment, though.
Although she believed Venmo was in the wrong, Ms. Rafatirad has been paying off the balance in installments. She was in the middle of refinancing her mortgage. “I didn’t have any other choice,” Ms. Rafatirad said. “If they reported it, my home loan would fall apart.”
After being contacted by the Journal, Venmo said it “brought the balance to zero” in the accounts of Ms. Arias’s daughter and Ms. Rafatirad.