Venmo Stops Payments for Palestinian Relief Funds, Citing ‘Security Concerns’

Venmo Stops Payments for Palestinian Relief Funds, Citing ‘Security Concerns’
Photo: Igor Golovniov, Getty Images

We’re officially entering the second week in a row of fighting between Israel and Palestine, which means we probably haven’t seen the last of the hundreds of deaths and countless injuries inflicted on Gaza residents thus far. If you’re looking for a way to donate to the victims, then a quick word of advice: maybe don’t use Venmo to do it.

Reports from users began circulating on Twitter this week that the uber-popular (and weirdly petty) payment app is pausing some attempts to fundraise for Palestinian causes. In one screenshot posted to Twitter on Monday, a user shared what seemed to be an email from Venmo’s customer support asking about a $US50 ($64) payment sent to their account under the label “Palestinian Relief Fund.” Venmo’s email said that it was trying to understand “the purpose of this payment,” and to do so, it needed “ a complete and detailed explanation of what is intended to be paid for,” and the “establishment/location” that was going to be getting these funds.

The company also asked for a “brief summary” of the poster’s fundraising efforts thus far, and “details on how the funds will get to the beneficiaries.”

“Venmo is a fully regulated Money Service Business committed to providing our users a safe and easy way to send and receive payments,” the email read. “In support of this commitment, our compliance department implements controls to ensure our payment platform is used properly.”

While the company declined to comment on precisely why these transactions were being held for review, a spokesperson told Gizmodo the move was part of the company’s compliance with the Office of Foreign Assets Control — or OFAC — the federal agency under the U.S. Department of Treasury that’s responsible for upholding sanctions. The spokesperson also directed Gizmodo to a blog post updated last year describing the basics of the company’s review process for payments that “may violate U.S. economic sanctions.” Per Venmo’s post, this includes screening payment notes for “references to certain sanctioned countries, individuals, and organisations included on OFAC’s list of Specially Designated Nationals List.”

“We understand the importance of these transactions and apologise for any delay that may occur as we work to quickly process payments in compliance with applicable law,” the spokesperson said. “We strive to balance these obligations with the urgency of our users desire to send humanitarian aid.”

A quick scan of the currently active sanctions from the OFAC website shows that there are sanctions against some relatively innocuous-sounding groups, including Interpal, the working name for the London-based Palestinian Relief and Development Fund. OFAC’s list also points out these sanctions are active against any of the aliases the charity might be operating under, like “Palestine Relief Fund,” or “Palestinian Relief Fund.”

Instead of exclusively halting payments made under these names, it seems like whatever algorithmic system Venmo implemented to scan potential payments did what algorithms are wont to do: overgeneralize everything. Tests that were conducted by Rest of World and confirmed by Gizmodo found that the platform halted payments with any combination of words like “Palestinian” or “Palestine” alongside the phrase “relief fund” — even if they have nothing to do with the sanctioned charity.

The screenshot presented when Venmo flags your Palestine-related payment. (Screenshot: Shoshana Wodinsky (Gizmodo)) The screenshot presented when Venmo flags your Palestine-related payment. (Screenshot: Shoshana Wodinsky (Gizmodo))

Venmo’s spokesperson was quick to tell Gizmodo that the company wasn’t blocking “legitimate payments” entirely, but it was holding them for a certain review period. We’ve asked Venmo what qualifies as a legitimate payment and will update this post when we learn more. The notice that cropped up in response to Gizmodo’s test payments stated that this review period would last 48 hours.

This might be the first time the platform has openly cracked down on Pro-Palestinian content, but Venmo’s parent company, Paypal, has been doing the same for years. The company has famously refused to let people sign up for a Paypal account using an address in Gaza or the West Bank, while some Palestinian activist groups based outside of those regions have reported finding their own Paypal accounts shuttered without warning.