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On Venmo, the lifestyles of the (fake) rich and famous

I spent a few months as John Legend on Venmo. It got weird.

Aaron Robinson/CNET

Every now and then, I get random requests for money on Venmo.

The PayPal-owned app lets you request money from and send it to anybody, as long as you know that person's username. People typically use it to split a restaurant bill or to pay back a friend when they don't have cash on them.

Getting "cold calls" asking for cash on Venmo isn't as common. And yet, since I created my account in early February, a notification hits my inbox roughly once a week. The first time it happened it was for $100, with the request, "being popular." Another one came in the day after, for $20, asking "Help a broke college student out."

Yet another request sought a donation to a children's hospital in Macon, Georgia.

That's the world you live in when you own the Venmo handle @JohnLegend, with a photo of the Grammy-winning singer as your avatar.

Screenshot of a fake John Legend account in Venmo.

Yep, that's me, the man behind the @JohnLegend account. I only have 93 cents, so please stop asking me for money.

Alfred Ng/CNET

Some pleas are really blunt, like the very creative $2 request I received in which the person just wrote, "You're John Legend."

To be clear, I'm not John Legend secretly posing as a CNET reporter. (That's definitely not my voice coming from Google Assistant.)  Legend did not respond to a request for comment. 

My experiment -- and I have to stress that this was just an experiment -- brought me into an entire world of people posing as famous figures on Venmo, from those pretending to be tech luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, to the realm of politics, as in the case of a fake Bernie Sanders account, to superstar wannabes invoking the names of Justin Bieber and Kanye West.

It's just one of the odder quirks of Venmo, which rose to prominence not only as a money-exchange app, but one that adds the element of a social network through the public interactions you can post while sending or requesting money. Because of its similarities to Facebook or Twitter, it would only make sense that people try to be celebrities there, too.

After all, posing as celebrities on social media is pretty common. On Twitter, there's a fake Bill Murray account with more than half a million followers. On Instagram, there's an account that pretends to be the Republican Party so it can sell merchandise. On Facebook, there are cases of dedicated fans role-playing as Korean pop stars.

But unlike Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Venmo doesn't have a verification system -- a blue tick mark or the like that tells you the prominent account actually belongs to the person it claims to represent. If an imposter carefully curates an account, there wouldn't be any clues as to whether the account is real or not. And Venmo doesn't have plans to introduce a verification system, a spokeswoman said. Venmo's user agreement does state that any users misrepresenting their personal information are violating its policy.

One look at the accounts, and it's pretty obvious they don't really belong to the celebrities for whom they're named -- but that doesn't mean their owners aren't having fun with them.

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Public payments to the @JustinBieber account can go from something average like "Gas bill" to "thanks for despacito" and "Idk if this is you but like if you're the real Justin Bieber then hey."

For the most part, these aren't get-rich quick schemes. They're typically people wanting to scoop up the handle and having a  laugh with their friends.

Or to make a statement.

Venmo trolling


A few of the many requests Austin Mitchell received under the Venmo handle @BetsyDeVos.

Austin Mitchell

Austin Mitchell, a 34-year-old podcast producer from Brooklyn, was having a beer with his friends last February, when they thought of a joke for Venmo.

They were upset about politics and decided to all change their handles to those of members of the Trump administration. Mitchell's account changed to @BetsyDeVos, the name of the woman who'd just been confirmed as the secretary of education.

Mitchell said he thought nothing of it. That is, until the outing of what appeared to be the Venmo account of then-White House spokesman Sean Spicer. People flooded the Spicer Venmo page with silly requests, and DeVos was next.

"It was like, 10 requests an hour, but by the night, it was one every minute," Mitchell said. "I shut my account down later that night."

Despite being the recipient of all the hate messages intended for the education secretary, some were actually pretty funny, he thought. Some requests came for more than $500,000 asking that DeVos pay a person's tuition, while others asked her to help pay off debt. Mitchell compiled more than 500 requests from a single day and posted it on a Tumblr page before deleting his account.

The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Originally, he planned to change his handle back, but once it had been discovered, it was too late. Now he can't open up a new account under his original name because his debit card information was stored on @BetsyDeVos, and Venmo's fraud detection won't let him use it for the new one.

"I would never have set it up if I had known something like this was going to happen," Mitchell said.

'Yes, this is my account name'

Not every experience posing as a celebrity is a hellscape of trolls flooding your account. For the owners of @GuyFieri and @MileyCyrus, it's actually pretty normal.

Of course, there's always the awkward moment of explaining that your Venmo handle isn't a lie, but people get over it pretty quickly.

Lin Zhang, 26, who owns @MileyCyrus, occasionally gets random requests for money, once for $20 to pay for twerking lessons.

Zhang, who originally wanted @KanyeWest or @KimKardashian (those were taken), is a big fan of Cyrus, so it was a perfect fit. Zhang doesn't have an avatar as Cyrus and doesn't even make transactions to appear as if she's the singer.

It does, though, get annoying anytime she meets somebody new and has to tell them she's serious. Some are wary it's a scam.

"I go to a lot of concerts, and if I have an extra ticket, I'll try to sell it on Facebook groups," Zhang said. "I do it through messaging, and I have to say my Venmo name is @MileyCyrus, and explain that it's not a joke."

She doesn't think that the real Cyrus would ever want the handle. It's too obvious, she said. Plus, she doesn't think wealthy celebrities really need to pay each other back online. Cyrus' representatives didn't respond to a request for comment.

Zhang didn't want to use her real name on Venmo because she didn't want people to know how she was spending her money. Some people use nicknames or their online tags. Others lean on their favorite memes, as Juno Suzuki did when she signed up as @GuyFieri.

Suzuki, a 19-year-old student at UCLA, looked at the Food Network star as a running joke with her friends, and her usual online alias couldn't be used on Venmo.

"I feel like every time I mention my Venmo handle, I have to reassure, 'yes, this is my account name,' just because he's such a meme-able figure," Suzuki said. "I don't find it burdening, it's kind of fun."

Unlike the bigger-name celebrities, she hasn't gotten any random requests for money as @GuyFieri, though the handle has helped her make friends. She once had to split a ride share with another student, who turned out to be fully aware of the meme.

"As soon as he found out my handle, he laughed," Suzuki said.

She said she's willing to give the handle to Fieri, especially if he ever cooked for her. Fieri's representatives declined to comment.

Being @JohnLegend hasn't provided any perks to go with the celebrity name. But sometimes, using that John Legend account, I'll randomly send a nickel to an unsuspecting acquaintance for "being a friend" to see how they react. Just, please, stop asking me for money.

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