In recent years, fraud operators typically have tried to get their targets to send money in one of four ways — gift cards, wire transfers, cyber currency or hard cash — as each is all but untraceable once the payment passes into their hands.
Now a fifth form of payment is quickly on the rise: peer-to-peer (P2P) money transfers via popular apps like Zelle, Venmo or Cash App. These services let you send money from a smartphone to a person you know by using funds in a linked bank account or credit or debit card. These transfers are instant and, in most situations, can’t be traced.
The AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline gets daily calls about P2P app scams like these:
- Looking for a puppy to replace a beloved pet that died, a woman from Nevada went online to find a pet for sale. After getting fake photos of a pup from a seller, she was asked to send $600 via Zelle. The woman got swindled out of a replacement pooch — and the $600.
- A South Carolina woman got a call from someone who said he had seen her LinkedIn profile and wanted to hire her. She agreed, and the new company sent her a check to deposit for start-up costs. Then she was asked to send back a portion of that money through Zelle to pay for her background check. Of course, the check turned out to be fake, and the money she sent by Zelle was gone.
- A man from Illinois wanted to buy concert tickets posted on Instagram. He asked to pay by credit card but was pressured into paying $800 through Venmo. When the transfer went through, the crook actually bragged to the buyer that he had just been scammed and wouldn’t see his money again — or the tickets.
- A Louisiana woman went online and searched for air conditioners. She found a great deal on a website that only accepted Cash App. She paid $97.99 from her account, but the air conditioner never arrived.
A spokesman for PayPal, which owns Venmo, says, “We encourage customers who suspect they are the target of a scam to contact customer service directly.”
In some cases, scammers are using P2P apps in more sophisticated ruses. Lura Ball, 66, a widowed baker from Los Angeles, was saving money to fulfill a longtime goal of opening a business. On Thanksgiving 2021, she got caught up in a Zelle scam that almost destroyed that dream. (Hear her full story on AARP’s The Perfect Scam podcast at aarp.org/theperfectscam.) The crook called her, pretending to be from her bank, and told her someone was trying to make a large Zelle transaction through her account. Thinking she was stopping the scam, she inadvertently enabled the criminal to empty her account.
“I just lost my business,” Ball said in the podcast episode, as the reality hit her. “That’s $18,500. Everything I have. I am absolutely sick. I felt ashamed. I felt sick to my stomach.” That story has a relatively happy ending: Her bank eventually agreed to reimburse her. But the scammer got away with the bank’s money. Few such frauds end up with the target getting their money back.
AARP Fraud Watch Network’s 5 ways to stay safe
1. Never use P2P transfer apps when engaging with strangers or businesses. For purchases or other transactions, you have much more protection if you use a credit card.
2. If someone you don’t know insists on being paid with Zelle, Cash App or Venmo, walk away. The odds are too high that it’s a scam.
3. Link the app you are using to a credit card rather than a bank account for more built-in protection. And be sure to pay off the credit card on time to avoid paying interest.
4. Don’t click on links sent to you via text or email with a request to update your P2P account information. These are often sent by scammers.
5. If you do think you’ve been cheated, always go directly to the app’s website to reach customer service. If you do a generic web search for a company’s customer service department, fake sites built by crooks often will show up among the results — and you could get hit by a whole other scam.
Have questions related to scams? Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline toll-free at 877-908-3360. For the latest fraud news and advice, go to aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.