It’s safe to say White House press secretary Sean Spicer is having a bad week. To put the mayo on his turd sandwich, last night people discovered his account on Venmo and started sending him bogus payment requests with trolling messages.
The wave of trolling was kicked off when the celebrity gossip podcast Who? Weekly tweeted that Spicer could be found on Venmo after a listener tipped them off. This isn’t the first time the podcast has looked for C-list celebs on the payment app — they also found Bella Thorne and Tiffany Trump. (Full disclosure: I am a friend of the hosts and made one of its theme songs.) A few hours after Spicer’s Venmo was trolled, people found Kellyanne Conway’s account and did the same. This is all meant to be relatively harmless fun; only a real killjoy wouldn’t see the appeal of the weirdness of finding celebrities on a highly plebeian money app. It’s funny to find celebrities on Venmo precisely because you wouldn’t expect them to be there, and it’s the kind of app that we use for unglamorous and petty things like splitting cab fare or drinks.
A bunch of extraneous Venmo requests are probably the least of Spicer's concerns at the moment (BuzzFeed News confirmed the account was his by matching his phone number). However, the ability to use Venmo to harass someone with bogus payment requests should strike you as somewhat alarming.
1) Venmo is convenient precisely because it’s so easy to find your friends on it, just by phone number, email, or name. The privacy settings allow you to make the details of your payments private, but there’s no option to keep your account completely hidden from search. If you’re on there, people can find you by just your name.
This level of privacy setting is akin to what other social networks like Facebook or Twitter offer — you can make the details of your account private, but not the fact that you HAVE an account. But on those platforms, you can prevent randos from sending you messages or even trying to add you.
Part of what makes Venmo fun is the fact that it layers elements of a social network on top of a regular payments app: You can look at the feed of your friends’ payments and see who they’re interacting with. If you really want to be weird, you can even comment on their payments. Tilt your head and squint, and Venmo is a social network that happens to do payments. And where there’s a social network, there are trolls.
2) Venmo sends you a text message and push notification for payments and requests. It’s possible to turn these off deep in the settings, but it’s likely many people leave these on — I have them left on. This means Sean Spicer’s phone was probably blowing up late into the night while people sent him pennies.
The text message that Venmo sends you for a payment or request contains the message from the transaction. Here’s what this means: Let’s say you want to say “go jump in a lake” to Sean Spicer. You could tweet at him, but let’s be real: At best he’ll probably just quickly glance it while scrolling through his mentions. And in the context of Twitter, it’s nothing. You, the average citizen, don’t have much ability to directly get the attention of one of the people at the tight inner circle to the president. But if you merely search his name on Venmo, you can send a payment request, and blammo! You sent a message via a text directly to his personal cell phone. And while you can block people, you have to do it one by one (according to some reports, Spicer was receiving hundreds of these messages).
3) While you can reject requests for payments, you cannot reject someone sending you money. Which…in the case of a government official like Sean Spicer, is kind of weird. Spicer has no way of stopping me from sending him $100,000 and writing it “Trump payola, per our conversation” in the message. Sure, there’s nothing to stop me from dropping off a bag of cash at his doorstep either, but that might not be public or easy. For non-celebs, it’s not too hard to imagine scenarios in which sending someone money could be a form of harassment — a weapon to be used in a financial grudge between exes, friends, or businesspeople.
4) It works as an ad hoc reverse cell phone lookup. You can’t see a person’s phone number from their profile, but you can match up a phone number to a profile. Let’s say you have an anonymous cell phone number, and you want to find out who it belongs to. You can’t search by the phone number in Venmo, but if you complete a payment or request, it reveals the name attached to the number. Same with matching a name to an email address.
Facebook and Twitter allow you to search for people by email or phone, but that option can be turned off. In Venmo, there’s no option to turn this search off, or make it so that your number can’t be used to find you. Reporters need to match cell phones to names all the time, so this is a great tool for us — or perhaps just for anyone who sees their partner texting a stranger’s number and wants to find out who it is.
5) You can’t make your “friends” list private, which you can do on Facebook. This matters in cases like Spicer’s: For example, one of BuzzFeed’s politics reporters was able to help verify that the account actually belonged to the press secretary by glancing through his friends list and seeing names of Washington insiders.
Here’s where Venmo significantly differs from social networks: Being “friends” on Venmo with Spicer doesn’t mean he’s friendly with someone — it means they may have a financial connection. That matters for Sean Spicer; it matters for the rest of us, too.
A spokesperson for Venmo said that privacy for users is one of their highest priorities, and pointed me to a list of customizable privacy settings that control how your transactions will show up to other people. While the tools to make your payments private are there, this doesn’t significantly address what’s happening to Sean Spicer (his payments are all private).
“This doesn’t happen a lot. This is a new thing for Venmo to think about,” a company spokesperson told me. They were indeed very aware of what was happening with Spicer today from the news, but they declined to tell me if any direct actions had been taken, citing user privacy.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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