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Don’t Fall for These 9 Venmo, Cash App and Zelle Scams

Digital payment apps are playgrounds for scammers. Here's how to avoid their schemes.

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Digital payment apps like Zelle, Venmo, Cash App and PayPal are convenient. These apps -- also known as peer-to-peer or P2P apps -- make it easy to send money to friends and businesses, often free of charge.

Unfortunately, they’re also rife with scams. Nearly a quarter (17%) of adults who use digital payment apps were victims or intended victims of scammers on these apps in 2023, according to AARP research. And those scams can cost people big money.

Customers at four banks lost over $213 million to scammers on Zelle throughout 2021 and the first half of 2022, according to a report from Senator Elizabeth Warren. And that’s just Zelle payments at four banks.

Worse yet, you often can’t reverse digital payment app transactions, even if you’re the victim of a scam. So, it’s crucial to educate yourself on how to spot a scam and avoid falling prey to one.

9 common digital payment app scams

Con artists are endlessly creative, but many digital payment scams fall into the following general categories.

Cash flipping scam

You get a DM from someone on Instagram or another social media platform with an appealing offer: Send me $100, and I’ll use an app partnership to turn it into $500 in days. Sounds too good to be true? That’s because it is. No one -- especially some stranger on the internet -- can exponentially grow your money immediately.

Phishing scam 

You get an email from someone who claims to work at a mobile payment app asking you to click a link and update your information to upgrade your account or accept a payment. This is a standard phishing expedition -- a scam that tricks people into sharing sensitive information with someone they think is a trusted source. If you click the link, your phone can be infected with malware that hijacks your account.

Never click an email link requesting login credentials or other personal details, even if it looks legitimate. Contact customer service through the payment app to verify the request. 

Pro Tip

Mobile payment apps probably won’t send you a link to update your information. You can do that directly in the app if you need to.

Fake item sale scam

You’re browsing a site like Craigslist for a new couch, and you find what looks like an amazing deal. When you contact the seller, they tell you it’s first come, first served, and if you really want to get the goods, you need to pay now -- without even seeing the couch in person. If you submit the money via a digital payment app, you run the risk of the seller disappearing with it. And you’ll be stuck sitting on the floor without a new couch.

Fake item sales are especially tempting if the item is rare or expensive, like a collectible or a car. Never pay for a product sight unseen, even if the deal seems too tempting to pass up.

Fake ticket scam

You want to see Taylor Swift, and you spot some surprisingly low-priced tickets on an online marketplace. But they may not get you into the show. Stick to a reputable secondary ticket market service such as StubHub or Ticketmaster’s Verified Resale service. The tickets may be pricey, but they’ll be legitimate. 

Software glitch scam

You receive an email saying you need to download a new version of a payment app to keep your software updated. The link takes you to a website that looks like the service provider’s, and you enter your username and password. The trouble is, there’s no new version of the app. Instead, the scammer just took your details and now has access to your account.

To keep your app up to date with the latest software, visit your phone’s app store and manually download any available updates or enable automatic updates.

Pro Tip

Digital payment app updates can include features that strengthen the app’s security measures. By keeping your app up-to-date, you can further protect yourself from scams.

Security deposit scam

Finding a new apartment can be stressful, especially in competitive real estate markets. But no matter how attractive a listing looks, you should never send money to “reserve” a place before seeing it. If you transfer money through a payment app based solely on an online listing, chances are the apartment won’t be available when you show up to view it.

Prize claiming scam

Digital payment services will never contact you to say you’ve managed to win a prize you didn’t even know existed. Don’t click on the link to claim your prize because your fake winnings will wind up being a real loss. The scammer may be able to steal your account details or infect your mobile device with malware.

Accidental payment scam

You receive a payment from someone you don’t know. Then, that someone contacts you saying the payment was a mistake and asking you to return the money. Like the good person you are, you send the stranger back their funds.

However, those funds may have been stolen in the first place using someone else’s credit card or bank account. Contact your bank first to determine the best course of action and avoid becoming a part of the maze of fraud.

Romance scam

Matchmaking services like Bumble, Tinder and Match can lead you to something much worse than a bad first date: an imposter who pretends to be in love with you but is really in love with the chance to steal your money.

If you meet someone online and strike up a digital courtship, don’t send them money to cover travel expenses to visit you or pay for an emergency expense. If the relationship is real, it won’t depend on your willingness to send funds to someone you haven’t met in person.

Pro Tip

If you suspect you’ve been the victim of a digital payment app scam, contact the app and your financial institution immediately. There’s no guarantee you can reclaim stolen funds, but your bank may be willing to step in and help.

How to avoid scams on mobile payment apps

You don’t have to stop using P2P apps altogether to avoid losing money. These services can be convenient and cost-effective ways to send and receive funds. You just need to be vigilant about monitoring your account for any suspicious activity and use common sense. These tips can help.

  • Don’t send money to strangers. Restrict person-to-person payments to persons you actually know. Use these apps to pay back your friends, send money to family members or pay for products and services from trusted business owners. Avoid using them to transfer money to strangers.
  • Don’t click on links in texts or emails. Unsolicited messages asking for your information are typically phishing attempts. Use the customer service option in the app to contact the company directly and verify the request.
  • Use a security lock. Payment app security locks use a four-digit PIN or a scan of your fingerprint or face to prove it’s really you initiating a payment. Even if someone steals your phone and opens the app, this added security measure prevents them from accessing your account.
  • Scrutinize senders’ email addresses. Scammers often rely on tricks that can pass a quick glance, like using an email address that ends in “zelleapp.com” or “venmoservice.com.” If you’re unsure whether the sender is really the service you use, log into the app directly to chat with customer service.
  • Be wary of anything that seems urgent. Scammers create a sense of panic to make you act before you think. If you receive an urgent warning, like an email saying your account will be closed if you don’t update your information, take a deep breath and give it a closer look.
  • Keep your account information safe. Create a strong password for the app using a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters. Don’t use the same login credentials for different accounts. And avoid handing out your email address or phone number, which scammers can use to decipher additional information about you.
  • Consider unlinking your bank account from the app. If you’re really worried about the potential for fraudulent activity, you can disconnect your bank account from the app. It will make receiving and sending money more challenging, but it can provide extra peace of mind.
David McMillin writes about credit cards, mortgages, banking, taxes and travel. Based in Chicago, he writes with one objective in mind: Help readers figure out how to save more and stress less. He is also a musician, which means he has spent a lot of time worrying about money. He applies the lessons he's learned from that financial balancing act to offer practical advice for personal spending decisions.
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