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My phone buzzed at my desk last Thursday while I fussed with a particularly finicky report.
“$18 for drinks,” read the Venmo message on the screen.
I simultaneously rolled my eyes and smiled to myself. I explicitly told Trevor he didn’t need to pay me for the extra round of drinks last Saturday but, as per usual, he was using Venmo to ensure all debts were indeed settled.
You see, Trevor is the arbiter of equity and the defender of fairness. He’s the guy that makes sure no one feels taken advantage of. He has a reputation for using Venmo as his tool for justice, wielding it like a sword to ensure fairness throughout the land of late-night drinking and complicated restaurant bills. He didn’t need to pay me, but it was kind that he did.
No sooner did I flip my phone back over to concentrate on my report when a second message buzzed onto my screen. This time, it was from my best friend Al to our three-person group text.
“Someone hacked my Venmo. They stole $3,000,” she wrote.
“What?!?” replied Leah, our third best friend from college. She’s an accountant and tends to get railed up regarding any monetary injustice.
“Can you reverse it? Have you closed your account?!” I said next, immediately walking through her best course of action in my head.
See, Al moved to New York City less than a year ago. She works her ass off in an entry-level job at a travel magazine because it is her dream to work in that industry. She never complains or whines but after exorbitant rent, groceries, and insurance it is not uncommon for her account balance to be dangerously low by the end of the month. She’s 23 and simply doesn’t have a rainy day account to fall back on. I was worried for her, to say the least.
“Yeah, it’s a huge bummer” she replied. “But I contacted Venmo and froze my account. They said they’d get back to me in 3-4 days. I also called my bank, they said they would launch an investigation and get back to me in 7-10 days.”
“3-4 days?!” Leah scoffed. “How is that possible? What are you supposed to do until then?”
“There’s nothing more I can do until Monday. The account that the hacker sent the money to has been closed, so I can’t track it. It’ll all be fine. I’m sure they deal with this a lot.”
So, we all believed her. We went back to work and focused on our plans for the weekend. I even sent a few more Venmo requests and payments back and forth.
My faith in the company hadn’t degraded entirely. I was sure they would sort out my friend. After all, she’d been a customer for forever and operated in good faith that the app was secure. Even if they had to reimburse the $3,000 without finding the thief, what was $3,000 to a multi-billion dollar company?
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
On Monday morning, as I waited for my coffee to brew, Leah and I got four texts in rapid succession.
“What the fuck.”
“Venmo denied my claim!”
“They initially reimbursed me the $3,000, but now they want me to pay it back.”
“What do I do?!”
I couldn’t believe it. Leah and I immediately fired away with both our outrage and questions. and closed our accounts. Who is to say the exact same thing wouldn’t happen to us?
Even if the bank denied her claim, why wasn’t Venmo reimbursing Al for the money that was stolen from her account? It was their app that was hacked! Why was she all the sudden liable for $3,000 that one day was sitting in her bank account, and the next was being transferred via Venmo by some unknown malicious actor?
Ultimately, here’s what happened. Al saw the fraudulent deposit of $3,000 and immediately froze her account. She then contacted Venmo and received an email that they would respond in 3-4 days. She contacted the bank and they launched an investigation. Five days later, Venmo responded to Al’s request. Because they were so late in responding, they issued her a $3,000 credit directly into her bank account while they completed their investigation. When the bank saw the $3,000 deposit from Venmo, they assumed the problem had been solved and halted their investigation. Two days later, Venmo came back to Al and said they had denied her claim, and that she was to return the $3,000 to Venmo immediately.
Al spent the next week going back and forth with the bank and Venmo’s customer service team. They continue to demand she pay the $3,000 that was stolen from her account, regardless of the fact that her bank will not reimburse her for her loss.
I understand that it is the bank’s responsibility to investigate the matter further, but isn’t Venmo equally as culpable. We link our Venmo accounts to our savings accounts in good faith, believing that they are secure. I never imagined they would leave a customer out to dry when the monetary loss was the direct effect of a hack in their own system.
Last night, while I was on the phone with Al and Leah, my heart broke.
“I can’t pay my utility bills because of the Venmo thing,” she said.
My friend, who works her ass off for over 50 hours a week to barely make it by in New York City, now can’t pay her utility bills because of something Venmo did. She can’t buy groceries, her entire savings is depleted, and her morale is terribly low.
New York City can be a wicked beast, but I never thought Venmo would be a willing participant in what has otherwise been a demoralizing year for Al.
In August 2012, Braintree bought Venmo for $26.2 million. The following year, Paypal acquired Braintree (including Venmo) for $800 million. It seems to me like they probably have the capital to correct their mistake when it comes to my friend and her stolen $3,000.
I’m still holding out hope that it is all some clerical error, that they will eventually fix their mistake. That being said, big companies and integrity aren’t always synonymous in our country. Venmo seems to be no exception.
Me? Deleting my account. If a hacker drains your account, just like my friend, who knows if you’ll ever see the money again.
That, or buy a fuck ton of BitCoin – at this point, it seems like a fairly equal gamble. .