Venmo/PayPal Go Overboard On Compliance

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If you’re trying to use Venmo to pay someone for sitting your Persian cat or for buying a used Persian rug, don’t actually use the word “Persian” or be prepared to wait longer. And you can thank a compliance program that is perhaps going a few steps too far.

Although opting—understandably—to be vague on specifics, the PayPal-owned Venmo responded to media reports that is has coded its systems to be on the lookout for certain words, including Persian.

“There has been recent discussion around specific keywords associated with payments within Venmo that have caused us to pause the transaction and review. We understand the frustration this may cause,” Venmo said on its blog. Venmo is “committed to ensuring that Venmo’s products and services are not used in violation of U.S. economic or trade sanctions. To that end, we’ve implemented specific policies to ensure that we are moving money from person-to-person in a way that complies with government regulations.”

Venmo said that it “is required to screen activity and flag any payments that may violate U.S. trade sanctions and/or involve certain foreign countries—comprehensive country-based sanctions—and governments, regimes, corporations, organizations and individuals—selective targeted sanctions—on the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list maintained by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).”

In short, Venmo (parent company PayPal reportedly has many of the same issues) is saying that it’s merely following government rules. But isn’t a list of banned generic words a rather ineffective way of doing it?

In the Inc. story referenced above, they make a case that Venmo’s and PayPal’s restrictions don’t with the word Persian: “This isn’t the first time users of Venmo or PayPal have complained about the services delaying payments that reference specific keywords. Buzzfeed reported last month that PayPal and Venmo were delaying donations to nonprofits that serve Syrian refugees when payment messages referenced Syria. And in a case reported by ValleyWag in 2014, a woman’s account was frozen after she used the name “Ahmed” in text accompanying a payment.”

Presumably, this all revolves around attempts to avoid money transfers to terrorist organizations. But given that true terrorists are unlikely to honestly label their transactions, this seems a tactic much more effective at alienating legitimate customers than interfering with bad guy transactions. Indeed, a terrorist is more likely to say “Happy birthday, Johnny” than to share anything threatening.

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