Smart About Money: A Spotlight on Venmo

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Nick Maffeo Sep 1 2020As a banker and someone who uses the internet a lot, I have become increasingly alarmed about the extreme lack of privacy people have online.

The spotlight today is on Venmo. Venmo is convenient. It’s easy. It’s time-saving and popular. There’s a lot I like about it but Venmo’s “public by default” settings mean that anyone anywhere can see who you’re paying and what you’re paying for in real time.

“We make it default because it’s fun to share information with friends in the social world,” a Venmo representative told CNET in 2018. “Public” is still the default on Venmo today, two years later.

Wired has written, “Venmo’s insistence on mimicking a social networking app isn’t just weird – it can have unnerving consequences. Creepy, right?”

It does seem startling and concerning to read how a privacy advocate 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,” according to Wired.

Or, as MarketWatch wrote, “It is certainly quite a shock when you discover that your purchase of corn on the cob – or the illegal purchase of something else – and everything in-between is public.”

Perhaps some do think it’s “fun to share (their Venmo) information with friends in the social world.” But Venmo’s global public feed is also searchable, making information-harvesting very, very easy for spear-phishing cybercriminals, stalkers, divorce attorneys and the curious, to name just a few.

The Federal Trade Commission, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation and many others have called Venmo out multiple times over the years regarding privacy concerns and other false claims. (For example, Venmo once claimed to offer “bank-grade security.” It doesn’t.)

Venmo says users can easily change their settings to “Private.” But even that can be tricky. One local man was stunned to see that his transactions were still public when he was 100% sure he’d changed the privacy setting on his phone. It turned out he needed to change the setting on his desktop too.

Banks are highly-regulated to protect customers’ money and their privacy. Why not Venmo and other internet companies? That’s a big topic and possibly a subject for a future column.

In the meantime, what can you do to protect yourself?
Three things:

1. Always keep in mind that – as a practical matter – there is no privacy online. Presume that everything you do online is visible to someone. Or many people. If privacy is a primary concern (and on the internet it should be), you usually have other options. If someone asks you to pay via Venmo, it’s perfectly okay to say, “I don’t use that. I’ll just pay you cash or by credit card or check.”

2. Before using any new-to-you app or internet service, Google it. A quick search on Venmo turns up multiple articles that outline the well-known privacy and security issues. You may decide the convenience of using a specific app makes it worth it to you. But at least with a quick search you’ll have a better understanding of what you’re getting into.

3. Speak to your banker about options you might have with them that really do provide “bank-grade security” for both your money and your privacy. Unlike apparently too many web-based applications, banks actually want to protect customers.

Nick Maffeo is the President & CEO of Canton Co-operative Bank in Canton. Have a question? Email to info@cantoncoopbank.com.

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