‘You paid yourself from me’: Venmo users discover secrets about the app | Applications
HEofficially, Venmo is an app that lets you transfer money from one person to another. In the US, where most banks don’t offer instant free money transfers, it has revolutionized simple things like splitting the dinner bill or sending roommates half the rent. But because the Venmo app has a “home feed,” an endless scroll of payments between users, it’s also a sneaky form of social media. See how your friends are spending their money – and who they’re spending it with.
After checking my bill, I now know that my high school football coach gave his wife money to spend at Petco last night. A friend of a friend went out for pizza. An old co-worker paid her father for HBOMax. A man I once met sends money exclusively for horse emojis – I assume that’s code for ketamine, the horse tranquilizer/party drug, but he may have a secret gambling habit.
Although users have the option to make their payments private, many people forget to do so. When Daily Beast reporters looked into Matt Gaetz’s transactions, they discovered the Florida lawmaker had paid an accused sex trafficker through the app.
Even Joe Biden didn’t have a private account. It took Buzzfeed reporters less than 10 minutes to find the president’s personal account, where he allegedly sends the money to his grandchildren.
What does this mean for others? A study conducted by experts at the University of Southern California found that two out of five Venmo users disclose “sensitive information” publicly on the app. Another researcher documented a year of public interactions in the lives of strangers on Venmo and found what Vice called a “soap opera”: breakups, drug deals, payments to sugar daddies. We all accidentally tell ourselves.
We talked to people who learned things they shouldn’t have in the app. But before you read any further, check your privacy settings.
“He never told me what the money was for”
Two years ago I met a woman who worked at the mall. I asked her out and we started dating. We were together for about 10 months. I trusted him. We shared each other’s phones when we needed to call or check; if he had his phone in front of me, I’d use his. Or use mine. I didn’t really think about it.
I owned a property at the time and used Venmo for things related to managing it, like paying the lawn care company for work. I barely looked at the app. It’s one of those things where I installed it, set it up, and forgot about it. I probably looked at it every couple of months.
One day I logged into Venmo and saw that my girlfriend was sending herself payments from me. I didn’t notice the payments because they were fairly small – maybe $20 every few months. It totaled about $80 or $100.
If someone steals from you, it won’t take more than a few minutes for you to realize that person needs to go. I faced him and asked him what happened, but he couldn’t say anything. By the end of the day he was out and never said what the money was for.
Now I’m more aware of not leaving myself logged into my accounts on different devices. And I deleted Venmo. I don’t think I will ever use it again.
Tim Connor, 31, Chattanooga, Tennessee
“Sent her money for birth control”
When I was in college in Connecticut, I dated a guy long distance. He lived in Boston, so we mostly saw each other on weekends.
One day—the week before Valentine’s Day, actually—I was in the middle of my school’s lunchroom and opened Venmo to pay a friend I went to dinner with the night before. The first thing I saw was my boyfriend paying another girl he mentioned to me as a friend. The subject line was just three emoticons: a circle with a slash, a mother with a baby, and a pill.
He seemed to send her money for birth control. I thought there was something I didn’t understand here.
I clicked on her page and hundreds of transactions happened between the two of them. The payouts were labeled with “date night” and the like. I immediately got on the phone with my friend and asked what happened. He didn’t try to hide it, but first he tried to hit me, “It’s not what you think…” He said it was just a joke. But he had no answer as to what it was. I found out he sent her money for the morning after pill.
The first thing I did was break up with him. The second thing I did was make all my shit private. Venmo was difficult to use for a while. When I opened it, I felt like I went to the coffee shop where I got dumped. It was a strange feeling to catch someone cheating in a virtual space. The idea of a monetized social media platform rubs me the wrong way.
My ex and I didn’t speak for two years, but we eventually built a decent friendship. The first time we went out as friends we split the bill and I had to unblock him on Venmo so he could pay me back.
Kat, 25, Connecticut
“Certain payments appeared to be code language for the meeting”
I was scrolling through my Venmo feed when I noticed something strange: one of my friends was sending money to someone I didn’t recognize. I don’t usually delve into my activity feeds, but it piqued my curiosity. I looked up what the payouts were or if there were any comments about the payouts. Certain payouts seemed like code language for the encounter. I found out that my boyfriend is cheating on his partner.
I was sure he was cheating or at least trying to hide something. I decided not to confront him. I wasn’t particularly close to him, but I still felt uncomfortable knowing something I shouldn’t have known. I decided it was not my place to participate. I decided to cut off contact with them to avoid any conflict that might arise from knowing what happened.
I no longer take my Venmo activity for granted. I am aware of the potential dangers of using Venmo, and this has made me more cautious when using the platform. I now double check that I am sending payments to the correct person and am more careful about my comments about payments.
Mark, 32, St. Louis Missouri
“They encouraged themselves to work with the threat of having to contribute to a pot of money”
I once reimbursed someone for dinner on Venmo and saw my friends pay with the subject line “Failure Again” and skull and crossbones emojis. They paid each other $20. They were all university professors like me studying cognitive psychology.
I had to do a bit of digging to find out what they were paying me, but I found out that I was paid for not writing that week. They were induced to work by the threat of having to contribute money. What they did was regular: they met online every week to discuss their work, and if they didn’t take it, they had to pay. I don’t know exactly where the money went. These people live all over the world, so I think they used it for drinks when they met at scientific conferences.
I asked if I could join the group because it sounded like fun, but they said I was too old—they were all assistant professors and I was an associate professor at the time. The thought crossed my mind that if I joined, I would never pay – instead of submitting the payment, I would just sit and write. But some of them may have been financially motivated to avoid paying more than $20 a week.
They are all very productive people. I don’t know if this group still exists, but they have all written many journal articles and articles since then.
Andrew Shtulman, 43, Pasadena, California