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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Why Are We All Still Using Venmo?

Venmo, the popular payment app owned by PayPal, has become the default way millions of Americans settle a check, pay a friend back for coffee, or buy a concert ticket off Craigslist. Writers have argued that Venmoing makes us petty, and that the app has nearly killed cash. Fewer have questioned whether it’s really the best service for exchanging money, or storing sensitive banking information.

The app has reigned supreme for over half a decade, but in 2018, there are more secure and easier-to-use payment options worth considering as replacements. Venmoing may be standard, but here’s why I’ve switched.

Most Venmo competitors, like Square’s Cash app, share the same core feature: You can send money with a few taps and swipes. Venmo is unique in that it has a social networking component. By default, all peer-to-peer Venmo transactions—aside from the payment amount—are public, to everyone in the world.


Creepy, right? Venmo does give users the ability to limit who can see transactions both before and after they're sent, but many people don’t choose to adjust their privacy settings. When I opened Venmo recently, the first payment on my news feed was from a friend whose concerns about privacy have led him to delete both his Instagram and Facebook accounts. Despite taking drastic steps to limit his digital footprint, I know who he ate sushi with last night, thanks to Venmo.

Venmo’s insistence on mimicking a social networking app isn't just weird—it can have unnerving consequences. In July, privacy advocate and designer Hang Do Thi Duc released Public by Default, a site that taps into Venmo’s API to highlight how much information can be gathered about you from your public activity on the app. She was able to trace the exact spending habits of a couple in California, documenting what stores they shopped at, when they took their dog to the vet, and when they made loan payments.

The same month, an engineer created a now-defunct Twitter bot that documented Venmo payments referencing drugs. Three years earlier, two unrelated technologists made a similar site to track supposedly scandalous payments, which is still running.

In the past, PayPal has insisted that users can simply change their Venmo settings to opt out of this kind of tracking. But even the Federal Trade Commission has argued that changing your Venmo privacy settings has historically been too onerous. In February, PayPal settled with the regulatory agency over allegations that Venmo “misled consumers about the extent to which they could keep their transactions private.” (Recently, even PayPal employees have questioned whether all transactions should be public by default, according to a Bloomberg story published earlier this week.)

The FTC said Venmo didn’t make it clear that users needed to change multiple settings in order to make their transactions truly hidden. The agency said the app also failed to disclose that one party in a transaction could retroactively change the privacy settings the other person set for the exchange. Venmo now includes a privacy tutorial pop-up for all new users, according to a spokesperson for the company.

In the same complaint, the FTC also alleged that Venmo, at least until March 2015, “misrepresented the extent of security it provided to consumer financial accounts,” by claiming that it had “bank-grade security protections.” While Venmo doesn’t appear to make such claims on its website anymore, the app isn't a bank, even though we often treat it like one. Venmo won't, for example, typically provide the same level of customer service in the event your money is stolen. Venmo does offer some security protections, like requiring a unique pin be entered to access your account. But again, they’re not enabled by default.

Cash Out

If Venmo were the only cash-transfer app of its kind, then fine. But there are plenty of better options out there. Apple Pay Cash, the iPhone maker’s Venmo-equivalent, requires two-factor authentication on your Apple ID to start making payments. It was also rated the best peer-to-peer payment app by Consumer Reports earlier this month, largely for its robust security protections. One downside: You can only use it to transfer money between Apple devices.

If you have an Android device, or simply want a payment app that’s hardware neutral, Square’s Cash app works great. The app's interface is sleek and easy to use, and there's no weird newsfeed. Sure, all your friends may be on Venmo, but maybe not for long: Square Cash is quickly growing more popular. The app was downloaded more times than Venmo in July and, as of earlier this week, it ranked higher than Venmo in the Apple App Store in the free finance apps category.

For the most part, Square Cash and Venmo share many of the same features. One downside to Square Cash is that it charges a 1.5 percent fee to instantly transfer a payment to your bank account, while Venmo only charges 25 cents. That higher fee can be a pain if you need to move a large amount of money quickly, but neither app charges anything for non-rush bank transfers, which typically occur the next business day. Square Cash also allows you to discover users nearby using Bluetooth, lowering the possibility of sending beer money to the wrong John Smith.

If you’d rather not download a new app, both Facebook and Google offer ways to send and receive money through services you may already use, like Gmail and Messenger. Your banking app may also already have the payment transfer service Zelle built into it, which could become more popular than Venmo this year.

An additional upside to these services is that you can use many of them from your desktop. Venmo, on the other hand, recently announced plans to disable its web functionality, making it mobile-only.

You likely already have several Venmo alternatives waiting for you on your phone. At the very most, you’ll need to convince your friends to download Square Cash in order to fully rid yourself of Venmo’s strange news feed. I, for one, already have it installed.

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