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Using payment apps? Here’s how to protect your privacy and avoid scams

July 30, 2021

Use apps such as PayPal Mobile Cash, Venmo, and Cash App to pay your babysitter, split the bill during a lunch with friends, or order shoes online? You’re not alone. A recent survey by AARP says that seven in 10 adults use at least one money transfer app.

This isn’t surprising. Payment apps offer an easy way for people to pay for everything from their morning coffee to the neighborhood kid who mows their lawns. But there is one downside to payment apps: You might be sacrificing some of your privacy to use them.

A recent New York Times report found that every payment app shares some personal data from users with third parties such as banks or fraud-monitoring services. And some share information about their users with marketing firms.

And one payment app — Venmo — operates like a social media site focused on transactions. It by default shares your purchase history with a list of your friends.

Fortunately, you can take steps to boost your privacy when using payment apps. And you can also protect yourself from less scrupulous snoops, such as hackers who want to steal the trove of personal information that they can nab from payment apps.

What kind of information do payment apps share?

The New York Times reported that every payment app shares some personal data with third parties. Some, though, only share information with banks and fraud-monitoring services, something they must do to allow payment transactions to close.

Apple Pay and Google Pay fall into this category, according to the Times story. They only share user information with banks and fraud services.

Other mobile payment apps, though, share user data on a wider basis. The Times said that apps such as Cash App, Venmo, Zelle, and PayPal Mobile Cash either share or sell data to marketing firms. After completing transactions with these services, you might start seeing targeted ads while you search the web.

Financial transactions can be personal. They can show how often you eat at the hot dog stand down the street or how often you make purchases at your local pharmacy. You might want some of this information to stay private.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use these payment apps. You’ll have to decide if the convenience of them outweighs the loss of privacy.

Adjust your settings to boost your privacy

Changing the settings is the key to boosting your privacy with at least one popular payment app, Venmo.

Venmo is interesting because by default it makes the history of your payments public. This means that everyone using the app can see where you've been spending your money.

When you make a payment with Venmo, three key pieces of information are listed for other users to see: the name of the person or business you sent money to, the date of the transaction, and the purpose of the purchase. The only thing not made public is the amount you spent on each transaction.

This information might seem harmless. But someone studying it could see when you're away from your home on vacation. They might be able to determine where, in general, you live based on your transaction history.

How to change your Venmo privacy settings

Fortunately, you can easily change your Venmo privacy settings. You have three choices when it comes to privacy settings.

The Public option, which is Venmo’s default option, means that anyone on the internet can see your transactions.

With the Friends option, your transactions are available to your list of Venmo friends. Be aware, though, that when you close a transaction, the friends of the person you are paying can also see your transactions.

Finally, Private means that your transactions are only visible on the “Your Stories” tab and the feed of the person involved in your payment.

For maximum privacy, it's best to choose the Private setting. Doing this is easy:

  • Open your Venmo app and tap the three-line menu icon in the top righthand corner.
  • Click "Settings." Once there, select "Privacy." 
  • Under the "Default Privacy Settings" option, choose "Private."
  • You can also change the privacy setting for your past payments by selecting "Change All to Private" under Venmo's "Past Payments" section.

What are other privacy issues when using payment apps?

Privacy issues are more complicated with other payment apps. Apps such as PayPal Mobile Cash and the Cash App are purely transactional. They don't offer the social-network features of Venmo. This means you don't have to worry about others seeing a history of your transactions when you use apps such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Zelle. 

But these apps might collect your GPS location data. If this concerns you, you can deny any app access to your location data through your phone's privacy settings. 

Remember, too, that many payment apps will use your transaction data for marketing purposes. This means they'll sell it to third-party companies that might use it to send you targeted ads.

Again, you'll have to determine if this outweighs the convenience of using payment apps. If it does, then you might have to avoid these apps completely. But if you're only mildly worried? You might just tweak your spending habits.

For instance, you might not care if your app collects information on the money you spent to order paper towels and hand soap from Amazon. But what if you want to buy something more personal, like anxiety medication or recreational drugs? Even if these purchases aren't illegal, you might want more privacy. Not using payment apps for these transactions might make sense.

How to protect against scams targeting payment-app users

Privacy isn’t the only concern you might have with mobile payment apps. You need to watch out for scammers, too. 

Watch for scams in text messages

You might, for instance, receive a text that looks like I came from Venmo, Zelle, Cash App, or any other payment app. The text might say that the payment app has discovered a suspicious transaction. It will always include a link for you to click.

 If you click, you’ll be taken to a web site where you’ll be asked to provide information about any credit cards or bank accounts linked to your payment app. Once you supply this, the scammer behind the trick will use it to access your bank accounts or run up charges on your credit cards.

Never click on these links. If you are worried that there might actually be a problem with your account? Call the payment app at its publicly listed customer-service number and ask.

Beware of offers to send you money

Be wary of messages from strangers saying they want to send you money but need more information about your account. These are almost always scams from criminals who want to access your accounts. Delete these requests immediately.

Enable automatic app updates

Another important step? Enable automatic app updates on your phone. These updates are important and are often designed to fend off the latest viruses or malware. If you don’t enable automatic updates, you’re leaving your apps more vulnerable to malware or spyware.

Set up payment notifications

Finally, set up payment notifications with your payment apps. If you do this, you’ll be notified every time a payment is made through your app. This way, if someone does gain access to your account and is using it to make unauthorized purchases, you’ll know immediately that there is a problem.

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Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. NortonLifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.

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