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5 Questions To Ask Before Using A Peer-To-Peer Mobile Payment App

Know what you're getting into when you sign up for one of these increasingly popular payment platforms

It’s never been easier to split the bill with your friends — from “Venmo-ing” $20 for a birthday gift or Facebook messaging $12 for your share of last night’s pizza. But brand new peer-to-peer (P2P) payment systems backed by big players, including established banks, are hitting app stores this year. Apple plans to debut its own P2P app this fall, while the big banks are banding together for a product called Zelle. With so many competing services, how will you decide which system (if any) to use?

Sure, you might be confident enough to download an app based on your friends’ recommendation (or simply because they owe you money), but you might be better served if you do a little investigating on your own.

From knowing your legal rights, to understanding just how long you have to wait before your cash is available to withdraw, there’s more to P2P systems than silly app names and convenience.

Here are five questions to ask when looking for a peer-to-peer payment system.

1. Can I Talk to a Human?

No one imagines running into an issue when sending their friend a quick $10 to split some happy hour cocktails, but when you use an service to send money — things can go wrong. For example, it can be easy to send a payment to the wrong contact.

Recent focus groups that our colleagues at Consumer Reports conducted with peer-to-peer payment app users found that people complained of accidentally sending money to the wrong person through these apps. Additionally, many users seemed to have “blind faith” that if a legal breach occurred or there was an error in completing a transaction on the part of the app company, the service would take it upon themselves to make it right.

No matter the issue, sooner or later P2P users will want to contact customer service. But when you do, will you get to talk to an actual person or will you have to rely on a ‘bot for help? That’s a question you should be able to answer before picking a system, said Christina Tetreault, our colleague and staff attorney for Consumers Union.

“The reason that’s the first piece of advice is that some P2Ps might have something in their contract that says ‘we aren’t going to help you, or we aren’t going to help you, but you should talk to your bank,” she tells Consumerist. “Having that information is crucial.”

While automated customer service might help in some situations, talking to a real person can typically serve to resolve issues more quickly and thoroughly.

Additionally, if you’re dealing with a business, like a store, you may need to contact the merchant instead of the payment app. For example, Venmo suggests customers contact the authorized merchant to attempt to resolve your issue before filing a dispute or claim with the P2P provider.

For those seeking to file a complaint about Facebook’s payment system, the company provides specific contact plans for different types of customers in certain states.

2. Is This Business or Personal?

There are a plethora of peer-to-peer payment options on the market, but many have very specific intended uses; some are for paying your friends, others are for buying goods or paying for services. Some can be used for both, but may require different accounts.

Because your use of the service can influence your rights, Tetreault notes that it’s crucial to read the terms and conditions to ensure you’re using the system for what it was designed to do.

For instance, if you’re using an app for commercial purposes, like cutting grass, you want to make sure you’re using a system designed for businesses. If you use a service to receive payment for selling an item — like a computer — you’re using it for a business purpose, even if you’re just cleaning out your closet.

“Even if you don’t think of yourself as a business, you could be,” Tetreault says, noting that even doing something as minor as yard work or snow shoveling could constitute a business in the system’s terms.

If you’re using a personal peer-to-peer app for business purposes, you might not be covered legally if something were to happen, like a payment bounced or you become the unwitting victim of a scam.

Take, for instance, the recent case in which a man says he was scammed out of $4,300 in camera equipment when the buyer asked to pay via Venmo.

The man agreed, and the purchaser began sending him a series of payment all under $100. Believing the money was in his account, the man handed off the camera to its new owner. The next day, however, he found his Venmo account had been frozen and the transaction blocked.

When the man contacted Venmo, he was told that the transaction was in violation of the company’s user policy.

Venmo offers separate business and personal accounts for users. Personal accounts are to be used only for person-to-person transfers with friends and family, and others you may know. These accounts may not be used to receive business, commercial, or merchant transactions.

“Personal accounts are for use in person-to-person transfers with friends and family, and other people whom you know,” the company’s terms state.

Venmo specifically notes that using a personal account for business purposes, or a business account for personal, family, or household purposes would constitute as a breach of contract, which could result in holds or transaction reversals.

As for Facebook, the company notes in its payment terms that the P2P service “is not intended to be used for business, commercial, or merchant transactions and such use may be discontinued without notice by us at any time.”

Additionally, the company may place a hold on transactions or place a reserve on funds if evidence of business, commercial, or merchant use is discovered.

Further, Facebook makes it clear that the using the P2P service is done at a user’s discretion.

“P2P use is at your sole risk and we assume no responsibility for the underlying transaction of funds, or the actions or identity of any transfer recipient or sender,” the terms state.

Square Cash, on the other hand, does not prohibit the services use for commercial or business purposes, so for someone looking to make both business and private transactions, this service may be a better fit.

The service’s terms note that users agree not to send or accept payments in connection with a litany of specific businesses or business activities, including illegal activity or goods; direct marketing or subscription offers or services; infomercial sales; rebate based businesses; manual or automated cash disbursements; prepaid cards; and other products.

Still, the company says that it “may block or reverse payments” at its sole discretion, so keep in mind that using P2P services are different than simply using a bank or a credit card.

You will be dependent on the service to help when something goes wrong, and depending on their terms and conditions, the outcome may or may not be in your favor.

3. What Does It Cost?

While using a P2P payment service can be a quick and rather effortless process, there could be fees that will impact which service is the best fit for you, Adam Rust, director for Reinvestment Partners, told Consumerist.

Different payment services offer different fee structures depending on the type of transaction and which payment method is linked to your account.

For instance, Venmo charges a standard 3% fee for some transactions, including those when a credit card is used to send money. However, that fee is waived when the transactions are funded by Venmo balance, bank account, or debit card.

Additionally, Venmo notes that users may be subject to third-party fees, such as insufficient fund fees, reversal fees, or ACH insufficient fund fees that a bank may charge if your payment is rejected.

Snapcash doesn’t charge fees for sending or receiving money, at least not right now. However, the company says it reserves the right to charge for and/or change the fees associated with use at anytime.

Facebook also notes that it doesn’t charge any fees for P2P transfers, but that customers could be on the hook for fees in the future if the payment is later invalidated for any reason.

4. Where’s The Actual Money?

Simply hitting “Pay” or “Transfer” doesn’t necessarily mean that funds will appear in your bank account. For many services, funds don’t actually go straight to your bank account. Instead, they appear as credit in your P2P account. For instance, if a friend sent you money to pay for a pizza you split, those funds would go into your P2P account. You could keep the credit in the P2P system, and then use those funds then to send another friend money for last night’s drink.

As with depositing a check or making a payment via a debit or credit card, it can take days for a peer-to-peer payment service to process a transaction that involves your bank. Rust tells Consumerist that while non-banking P2P services, like Venmo and Facebook, seem to transfer funds quickly within their systems, they must still traverse the traditional banking system in order to deliver actual cash to you — meaning that you’ll likely have to wait for a payment to clear before being able to access your funds outside the service.

Reading the terms and conditions for each service is crucial to knowing where and when you might expect funds to appear in your bank account.

“You need to check how quickly you can use the money, not just within the service, but to other accounts,” Tetreault said. “It’s complicated, and these are things people don’t think about, they want to spend it on what they want, but it could add a few days.”

Venmo, for example, says it will provide customers with an estimated arrival date when transferring funds from your Venmo account to your actual bank.

If a transfer is submitted before 7 p.m. ET, they will typically reach a user’s bank account in one business day. However, Venmo notes that all withdrawls could be delayed or blocked if a problem arrises.

When receiving a payment, the funds are automatically transferred to the customer’s Venmo account. If the funds aren’t transferred to a bank account or used after 30 days, Venmo will send the user a reminder to withdraw the funds or return them to their attached bank account.

Rust tells Consumerist that the systems are being forced to evolve with the addition of Zelle to the marketplace. Zelle is the bank-backed P2P system, and because this service is the service is fully-integrated into the banks that support it, the transactions are quicker, with near immediate payments.

According to its website, Zelle claims that customers can transfer funds to friends in a matter of minutes. However, the website notes that is only possible when the transactions are made between financial intuitions that both use Zelle. If this isn’t the case, it could take one to three days.

5. Where’s My Information Going?

Using a P2P service means sharing a wealth of personal information, not just your name and email, but also data pertinent to your bank account.

Knowing what these companies do with that information is critically important to users, and that means reading your chosen service’s terms and conditions and privacy policy. Here’s the privacy policy for Venmo, for example.

Privacy policies don’t necessarily guarantee you privacy, but they do provide you with information on what you can expect a business to do — or not do — with your data. Read the policy carefully. Look for phrases like “third-party sharing” and check to see if your consent is required for your information to be shared, sold, or used for marketing.

Additionally, according to Consumer Reports’ focus groups the security surrounding the use of these apps is not a “top of mind” concern, as many users don’t read terms and conditions before using the systems and already believe their information is all over the internet anyway.

“Generally speaking, you want to use a reliable service provider,” Tetreault says, explaining that answering just few questions by reading the fine print can help you decide if a service will work well for you. It’s also a good idea to see if the service is generally popular with its userbase — or if there seem to be a lot of problems.

“You also may want to look online to see what complaints are for any given service,” she adds.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.