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A better, smarter way to use Venmo

Paying someone back with a side of pizza and beer emojis is fun, but you're also parting with personal and financial information. Here's how to be smart about it.
by Nicole Spector /
Image: Venmo
Setting our options to private is one step in the right direction if we want to deal with Venmo more strictly as a financial transaction service.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file
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I'm probably the only person in my age group (early 30s) I know who doesn't have Venmo, the free payment sharing app. I keep saying, "next time," when the check comes at the end of brunch and I'm scrounging for cash while my friends are punching away on their phones to pay one another. Though I do my banking on my phone, as well as use PayPal, I'm a bit turned off by the social nature of Venmo. "Did you see that Lauren got drinks with Shannon and they didn't invite us?" A friend recently asked me. I had no idea. "I saw on Venmo!" he scowled.

Unless you set your transactions to private in the app's settings (which you can do one by one, or with a default option), your Venmo activity is there for all fellow users to see on the social feed, along with any messages accompanying it. The dollar amount is concealed, but one may not have to do much digging to figure out what the money was spent on; in the case of Lauren and Shannon those wine glass emojis spoke volumes and sparked some mild insecurities as to why I wasn't included in the fun.

Fear of Missing Out — And Maybe Some Lighthearted Stalking…

I reached out to Venmo users to learn if they ever felt what I was experiencing, (albeit secondhand): Venmo FOMO. Quite a few people admitted to the feeling, but some also indicated they were using the app a tad more aggressively to keep tabs on pals.

“I really enjoy Venmo stalking in the sense of seeing what people up to,” Luke Miedreich, a 27-year-old in New York City tells NBC News BETTER. “When people are cryptic about their weekend plans, I need details, and Venmo gives me those details. It’s funny because people try to be secretive about those things and won’t post on Instagram or Snapchat but then those fine mighty details on Venmo get overlooked.”

Daniella Joy, a 24-year-old in NYC who declined to share her last name (Joy is her middle name), notes that while she’s unfollowed an ex on all social media platforms, ended all communications and even deleted his phone number, she still finds herself checking up on him now and then via Venmo.

“It’s weird that the only way I still have insight into his life is through his Venmo transactions,” says Joy, adding that she knows she can block him, but just doesn’t for some reason not entirely known to her. “I have those moments where I wonder what he's been up to, who he has been going out with or whether he’s taking any trips and then I look on Venmo.”

It’s fun to see that everybody loves pizza and beer and the money with wings emoji, but it’s curious that so many people are broadcasting the financial details of their lives.

Robust Privacy Settings Are There For You

A company spokesperson for Venmo said in an email statement that “the safety and privacy of the people using Venmo and their information is one of our highest priorities. We have a number of different settings that you can customize when it comes to sharing your payments with friends.”

The spokesperson added that in addition to the option of privacy for each transaction, users can set all future payments to private by default. Additionally, you can make all of your past transactions private, so that the payments will remain in your personal feed but will only be visible to you and the person involved with those payments. You can also block users and keep requests private until you accept them.

Venmo’s full privacy policy is available for all to see, which is certainly helpful, but as Lorrie Faith Cranor, former FTC chief technologist and director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory points out, the more you share, the better the social media network can perform.

“Most companies simply profit off of people's data,” says Cranor. “The more they have the more they can profit. From a revenue perspective, it is not in their best interest to have you reduce amount of data you're giving them; that said, companies are starting to discover there is a liability in having people's data that can be misused or that is held without the notion of consent. Still, even that ‘private’ data is going somewhere.”

But privacy doesn’t seem to be a chief concern among throngs of Venmo users. A new report by Comet found that in the month of November 2018 alone, more than 18 million transactions were public on Venmo. The report analyzed data of these payments to see which emojis were most popular both in general and when broken down between presumed male and female users.

Marketers Can Potentially Use Your Public Activity To Target You

It’s fun to see that everybody loves pizza and beer and the money with wings emoji, but it’s curious that so many people are broadcasting the financial details of their lives. One may assume that sending over a few bucks for an Uber or reimbursing roommates for groceries may not mean much to anybody else, but these details are of clear value to potential marketers.

“This allows people to learn some patterns about what you do, who you associate with and perhaps the times of day you're spending money,” says Cranor. “That may give marketers ideas of when is a good time of day to target you, so you may be manipulated without realizing it.”

‘We Live In A Society Where Public Is Private’

Why privacy isn’t more important to users is an issue that Cranor says she and fellow researchers have been asking since well before the age of social media.

“I started doing this research in late 1990s. Even then people would say they wanted privacy but would willingly give up their data. It seems now that people do care about privacy, but they give it up because they feel it is already gone. They wonder, ‘How can I make it any worse, I've already lost.’ They [feel] they’re not empowered to actually do anything, so they may as well just let it go and enjoy life.”

Venmo user Joy can relate to this sentiment, noting that though she sets all her Venmo transactions to private, she feels that so much data about her is already out there anyway. Why even bother? Since the news of the Facebook data harvesting scandal broke, Joy says she and friends talk more about the issue of sharing but always land on the same old conclusion. “We live in a society where private is public. Frankly, I guess we're just okay with it since it doesn’t affect our day to day lives.”

We live in a society where private is public. Frankly, I guess we're just okay with it since it doesn’t affect our day to day lives.

Think Of Venmo Like A Bank

Alexander Lowry, a professor of finance at Gordon College and the director for the school's master of science in financial analysis program finds this “loosey goosey” behavior to be somewhat concerning.

“People don't think of Venmo like a bank which is essentially what it is,” Lowry says. “Think of the best banks and their apps. Privacy and security are our top priorities with them, and people need to think of Venmo the same.”

Setting our options to private is one step in the right direction if we want to deal with Venmo more strictly as a financial transaction service, but we should also think optimistically about what the sharing of our spending data could lead to down the road.

People don't think of Venmo like a bank which is essentially what it is.

Money can be more taboo than sex and I think it’s fantastic that we’re becoming more open about it,” says Lowry. “Especially now, when most people don’t have defined benefit pension plans like they used to and we have to take a more individual approach to saving for retirement. If you could use millennial data to incentivize someone to take debt down or to save more, that could be a wonderful thing.”

SIMPLE MONEY HACKS THAT'LL HELP YOU SPEND AND SAVE BETTER

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