Joking About Syria on Venmo Will Get You in Trouble With Security


When told at the wrong place at the wrong time, certain jokes can get you into big trouble. Jokes about sex at work. Jokes about bombs in an airport. And now: jokes about government conspiracies on Venmo.

In June, an anonymous Venmo user made a payment he labeled with the words "iced coffee Obama NSA inside job Syria." On Venmo, you can't make a payment without attaching a blurb, and people often use emojis and random text to make inside jokes.

Venmo wasn't laughing. In response, the company reached out with a list of very specific questions about this user's order:

Why would Venmo look into this kind of purchase? Good question! With terms like "Obama," "NSA" and "inside job," the message could have triggered security for a variety of reasons. According to Venmo, though, it wasn't the allusion to government surveillance or 9/11 conspiracies. It's the mention of Syria.

"As you probably know, Syria is a sanctioned country, and we are obligated to follow up when we see payments that are related to a sanctioned country, individual or entity," a Venmo representative told Mic in an email.

The United States currently has sanctions against Syria that prevent U.S. citizens from doing business with any part of the Syrian government, the Central Bank of Syria and individuals on a blocked-persons list. As a payments service, Venmo told Mic, it is required to comply with sanctions from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

"To minimize account interruptions, we are reaching out to Venmo users on an individual basis to inquire about posts, which contain words or phrases that could be considered unsanctioned and clear up any confusion," a Venmo representative told Mic.

So what else is Venmo combing through user data for? We've followed up with Venmo via email to ask specifically what other things, besides possibly sanctioned payment, they're looking for, as well as if they're looking at both public and private payments. We'll update this story if we hear back.