Complaints Against P2P Payment Apps Soar
Last updated June 22, 2021
Peer-to-peer (P2P) payment apps, such as Cash App, Venmo, and Zelle are not just for the “cool kids” anymore. They’re now mainstream. And as the number of users has gone up, so have complaints.
The Consumer Financial Bureau (CFPB) received more than 9,275 complaints about “mobile or digital wallets” (which includes P2P payment apps) since it first started accepting these complaints in 2017. The majority (more than 5,200) were filed between April 2020 and May 2021.
Listen to audio highlights of the story below:
Two companies had the most complaints since the CFPB started accepting them in 2017: PayPal, which owns Venmo (4,431), and Square, which operates Cash App (1,202). By comparison, Early Warning Services, which runs Zelle (now offered by more than 8,000 financial institutions) had 212 complaints.
Checkbook contacted PayPal and Cash App to get their responses to the volume of complaints. Cash App did not respond.
PayPal sent a statement that said in part: “PayPal and Venmo are unwavering in our commitment to protect consumers, and we will continue to put consumers first in everything that we do. Our teams work tirelessly to assist customers resolve their questions and issues. We offer several different ways for customers to contact our support teams, including live phone support.”
Consumer advocates at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund analyzed the CFPB complaint database and found three frequent issues: problems opening, closing, or managing accounts; fraud or scams; and problems with transactions (including unauthorized funds transfers).
Ed Mierzwinski, who wrote the US PIRG report, said it’s easy to make mistakes when paying on your phone—and difficult to get help if something goes wrong.
“You have a problem … and you can’t get anybody to reply to you or answer the phone,” Mierzwinski told Checkbook. “Sometimes an app will close their account without notice. Sometimes an app will freeze their account and won't tell the consumer why. Sometimes the consumer wants the account to be closed, but the app won't close it. And again, they are frustrated by the inability to get answers.”
Two examples from the CFPB complaint database:
“Venmo closed my account for no reason and will not help me with getting it back up and going. I am not sure if this is some mistake as I assume it has to be. I have not been able to get help from them for months but I just remembered I could file a report on here as I feel they are not doing their job properly and it is affecting me a great deal as I used Venmo quite frequently.”
“I have called the company Cashapp 5 times [about a pending deposit] and was told they would escalate the case. I emailed 10 times with no responses to any emails. Cashapp will not help over the support telephone line. They only offer email support.”
More Info Needed
The CFPB database lists digital wallet complaints by parent company, not payment platform, so U.S. PIRG could not separate complaints about Venmo from the original PayPal service unless the consumer mentioned Venmo by name in their description of the problem—which it was in seven percent of PayPal complaints. The report did not do a similar breakdown for Cash App.
U.S. PIRG would like to see the CFPB complaint database modified to include the P2P app to being complained about and not just the parent company. This would make future analysis more meaningful.
Expert Advice for Anyone Using a P2P Payment App
Digital payment apps are convenient, so they’re sure to grow in popularity, but they are not credit cards, which offer strong protections against fraud.
For example: If you initiate a payment to the wrong person or a scammer, that transaction is not considered an "unauthorized charge,” according to the federal rules that regulate payment apps, so it’s unlikely to be refunded.
Using P2P app is like giving someone cash, so the apps should only be used to send money to people you know and trust. It’s not the way to pay strangers or buy something on the internet. As Cash App reminds users, most payments are “instant and usually cannot be canceled.”
That’s why Mierzwinski has this advice: “If you're going to have a transaction, even with a good friend, and it's the first transaction, have the friend send you a text message or a request for payment to make sure you're connected with the right friend and not somebody with a similar username…such as BobSmith and BobSmith02.”
Some P2P payment apps are also designed as social media platforms—something I will never understand—and have the public sharing of information as the default, so other users can see who you paid and what you paid for, if you included that information in the transaction (i.e., “pizza” or “lake house rental”). Review the privacy settings, and switch to the most restrictive. If the app provides text notifications of transaction activity or two-factor authentication for log-in, opt for that extra protection.
U.S. PIRG recommends linking a P2P app to a credit card (if possible), or separate bank account, rather than your primary account that may have a sizeable balance. That way, if a hacker does hijack the app, they can’t steal as much money.
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.