More and more people are using peer-to-peer payment services, like Square’s Cash App and PayPal’s Venmo, to make purchases, handle their banking, or just to pitch in on the pizza you and your friends had delivered last night. These payment apps have been particularly useful for folks who may not be able to afford bank fees or have other barriers preventing them from accessing a bank account.
That’s because they are very easy to set up, requiring nothing more than an email address or phone number. Even folks with bank accounts are using these payment apps more as folks are trying to stay home and reduce their in-person contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of daily users on Venmo has grown 26% since last year.
While these apps bring a lot of convenience to our lives, they have also made running scams more convenient for cybercriminals. According to experts, the rate of fraud on Venmo and Cash App is three to four times higher than with credit or debit cards. While PayPal and Square don’t provide statistics about scams, there are some telling signs. The New York Times and Apptopia, a mobile services tracking firm, found that the number of users mentioning frauds or scams in Venmo customer reviews had increased by four times in the past year.
It seems that Cash App has the most fraudulent activity, with the Better Business Bureau reporting twice as many complaints about Cash App as Venmo, even though Venmo has more users. Zelle has a better track record when it comes to fraud, most likely because it requires a more thorough authentication process when setting up an account. It also has better legal protections for folks who have been scammed.
Some of the things that make these payment apps so quick and easy are exactly the reasons it’s so easy to scam users. The instantaneous payments mean that there’s not much of a vetting process, and not much time to catch a fraudulent transaction before it’s too late. Because you only need an email address or phone number to set up an account, it’s easy for criminals to set up dummy accounts for running scams.
Other scams have been facilitated by the marketing choices of the companies. For example, Cash App regularly runs a Cash App Friday promotion, in which users are rewarded for sharing their username, or $Cashtag, on social media. Unfortunately, this has essentially created a Rolodex of potential victims for criminals.
Square and PayPal are doing what they can to address the problem. Lena Anderson of Square says that they are “aware that there has been a recent rise in scammers trying to take advantage of customers using financial products, including Cash App. We’ve taken a number of proactive steps and made it our top priority.”
One “proactive step” Square has taken is to roll out a customer service phoneline, not only to make it faster and easier for customers to vet potentially fraudulent transactions or report scams, but also because scammers have been creating fake customer service phonelines to target users and collect their personal information. The phoneline is currently available to only some customers, but Square plans to scale it up to be available for all users over time.
Until these companies come up with more robust security systems, there are several things you can do to avoid scams. While you might get a cash bonus from Cash App, it’s probably not worth it to share your $Cashtag on social media. Only share your username with people you know. Never share your personal or banking information with strangers. Examine all transactions carefully. Some scammers are stealing money by making a payment request from an account that looks legitimate, but may have a slightly different spelling or one-letter change in the name.
No legitimate agents of these services should ever ask you for your sign-in code, or to download software, and you shouldn’t click on any links in messages promising cash prizes. Never send small payments in exchange for a promised reward – if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam. Don’t use digital payment apps to pay for or receive payment from sales on Craigslist, Offer Up, or Facebook Marketplace.
If you think you’ve been scammed, changed your PIN number immediately and contact the company and/or the FTC.