Monday, March 02, 2015

Hey, Venmo! (Happy to be a Luddite.)

Believe it or not, there are many excellent things about getting older.

One of the most excellent of the excellent is looking at what the young whippersnappers are up to and shaking your perplexed gray head. Oh you kids…

Much of my personal headshaking is around the use of technology: the surrender of privacy and dignity (quick, let me send some guy I talked to once in the lunchroom a selfie of my boobs – he’s so cute, he’ll never send it around); the casual, anonymous cruelty that leads to things being said and done that in viciousness, amount and duration generally exceed any bullying that occurs in the face to face world; and the sheer naiveté of trusting that all will be well with technology, that it just does not fail.

Oh, maybe us old fogeys just don’t get it, but, when it comes to things that are technology-based, I’m something of a skeptic.

Although it’s pretty much used as the receptacle for spam calls, I hang on to my landline. Sure, landlines can fail, too. And what’s behind them is plenty that’s electronic. But it’s comforting to have something in your life with six-nine’s (99.9999%) reliability, isn’t it? Even if the only one who takes advantage of it is Carmen from Cardholder Services.

And sure, when I’m driving, I like those press-button windows. But when I’m thinking about all the electronics that go into cars these days, I wish that there a few manual, mechanical overrides that you could invoke when some battery dies or chip fails. I’m not so much looking forward to cars that drive themselves, and I’m just as glad that planes still have captains and co-captains. Of course, most of what they do is stare at the computers running the plane. But if they had to take over the controls and make a manual landing, they’re there to do so.

Meanwhile, I don’t want to live with my head or my digital life in the cloud. I want my files on my computer, my pictures printed out (and in frames), my tunes on CD.

And I want cash in my pocket.

Sure, I regularly use my credit cards – gotta keep accumulating those frequent flyer miles. And I almost always use my debit card at Whole Foods. (Weirdly, I feel odd about crediting, rather than debiting, my groceries. And, by the way, I don’t think there’s anything holy about Whole Foods. It happens to be the closest full grocery store. I eagerly await the opening of  the Roche Brothers, which is going in to the old Filene’s Basement. They’re now hiring. I may well apply…)

I like smart cards. I have one for the T, another for Dunkin’ Donuts. I like giving them as gifts. I like getting them as gifts.

But, if someone asks me ‘what’s in your wallet,’ part of the answer is always going to be cash.

I am, thus, amazed when I see young folks charging or debit carding even the smallest of purchases: a cup of coffee, a candy bar.

At one point in time, there were only two types of folks who didn’t carry cash: The very poor, because they didn’t have any. And the very rich, who had toadies and courtiers to carry it for them.

But the young folks no like cash, even when it comes to bumming a couple of (virtual) bucks off of a friend.

A lot of them are using Venmo, a mobile payment gateway. It’s like PayPal, only for person-to-person transactions. No surprise, Venmo is part of PayPal, which I do use on occasion.

With Venmo, you can reimburse your friend who charged lunch (or paid with bitcoin, I suppose). You can give your brother back the five dollars you borrowed. You can grab some gas money from the moochers in the back seat.

And because this service is for twentysomethings, there is naturally a social component, letting you opt for having your transactions posted on the Venmo streaming transactions list. As in John A paid Jackie B for making my body stop hurting. Or Michael M paid Jay H for life advice. As in Vanessa E paid Paul Ifor March rent.

Unfortunately, the amount of money that changes (virtual) hands is not shown. That would sure make it more interesting. And given how little privacy plays into the day to day, I’m surprised the transaction value isn’t included.

Anyway, there are now all these young folks Venmo-ing away. It’s “fast, casual, convenient, and trendy.” What’s not to like?

Well, there’s the fact that Venmo might not be all the safe and secure, for one thing.

As one Venmo-er found out when he was notified by his bank that he had a large transaction pending.

At first glance, he thought his tax refund must have come through. He’d already paid his rent for the month, so he figured the alert must be for an incoming amount. “Then I did a double take,” he [Chris Grey] says.”

Chase had pinged Grey not about a credit to his account, but a debit for $2,850, through Venmo. Confused, Grey tried to pull up his Venmo account, but his password no longer worked. He used the reset option to get in, then inspected his settings. Under email authentications, a new address appeared. Notifications were disabled. Grey’s payment history showed that the funds—slightly below Venmo’s weekly sending limit of $2,999.99—had been sent at 3:09 p.m. the day before to a user he didn’t recognize. Some text listed the transaction’s ominous-sounding purchase: “for about time.” (Source: Slate)

And Venmo hadn’t given Grey any head’s up about all the setting changes that resulted in this hack.


Maybe someone should get on that.

After all, Venmo is not just a money transacting-machine, it’s at least on its way to be a money-making machine. (Those still exist, no?)

On eBay’s last earnings call – eBay being the ultimate owner – the chief exec was apparently all over Venmo, which in 3Q14 processed $700 million worth of transactions. That’s a lot of Ryan P paid Tyler G for  Chipotle.

“Venmo is on fire,” [John Donahoe] said last month during eBay’s fourth-quarter earnings call. “If you go to any college campus across America, they talk about Venmoing money to each other.”

Venmo may well be on fire, but that may just mean that the house is going to burn down unless they install a sprinkler system.

As of November, Venmo only had around 70 full-time employees. (Its parent PayPal, which oversaw $64.3 billion in transactions in the last quarter of 2014, has more than 10,000.) Three years after the service left its beta phase, Venmo doesn’t have a dedicated phone line for customer issues. Urgent emails about stolen funds receive slow responses. It doesn’t offer two-factor verification, an increasingly common security layer that requires users to provide a secondary passcode to access an account, though it’s working to implement it. Venmo says its mobile-transfer infrastructure “uses bank-grade security systems and data encryption to protect you and guard against any unauthorized transactions and access to your personal or financial information.” But when a hacker who breaches an account using your password can send $2,850 as quickly and conveniently as a twentysomething can repay $7 for a burrito, that’s clearly not enough.

Because of Venmo’s lack of security, Grey had to closeout his bank account, which he had linked his Venmo to, rather than to a credit card which would have been a less risky route to go. And he’s had to petition his bank to get his money back. (That at least worked.)

From the sounds of it, Venmo and, of course, its users (likely without giving it a second thought) have traded off convenience, ease of use, and social-ness, for  boring, uncool old security. (The social aspects apparently help make Venmo laughingly unsecure.) They also haven’t geared up for customer service, either. (Customer service: OMG. Talk about unhip.)

The generation that’s grown up “always on” has also, it seems, grown up blissfully unaware that the miracle of technology can jump up and bite you in the ass. Sometimes technology fails you(as those of us who came of professional age using things like early versions of Word can well remember. You know, back in the days before Autosave, when you could spend the entire day working on a document, only to have Word crash before you could save the file.) Sometimes you unthinkingly use technology, and end up with something on Twitter that should never have been said. And sometimes the ultra-convenient, the ultra-cool can get you hacked.

I guess like everyone else before them, the kids’ll have to figure it out the hard way.

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