The staggered payouts were the first clue something was wrong.
Rasa was selling his camera — a Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K, priced down to $4,300 — and had found a buyer on Facebook Marketplace. The buyer said his name was Andy Mai, and wanted to pay with Venmo. Rasa, who asked not to reveal his last name, thought the payment method was strange, but not a deal-breaker.
When the money finally came in, however, it came in $80 or $90 installments. Mai sent 52 total transactions, each under $100. Rasa wasn’t sure how to respond — but weird or not, the money was in his account. So when the buyer showed up, as agreed, outside his apartment in East Hollywood, he couldn’t think of a good reason to stop the deal. He handed over the camera and set the money to transfer to his bank account, figuring it was as safe as cash in his wallet.
The next day, he realized his mistake. Roughly 15 hours after he made the handoff, Venmo froze his account, asking him to verify his identity and reach out to local law enforcement. The transfer was blocked, and it soon became clear Rasa would never get his money. When he reached out to Venmo, customer service informed him he had broken Venmo’s user policy by receiving money in exchange for goods, and his account was officially suspended.
“I wasn’t a merchant,” Rasa told The Verge. “I’m not in the camera-selling business. This is the first camera I’ve sold in six months.”
Twelve days later in Ventura County, another video pro named Brendan was hit with a similar scam. He had listed a Sony DSLR with a set of lenses worth $7,500, and when he arrived at a local Starbucks for the handoff, he got the same suspicious string of transactions. The buyer, again, was Andy Mai, although Mai had sent a friend to pick up the lenses. The next day, Brendan’s Venmo account was suspended, and his equipment was gone.
As Brendan and Rasa shared their story with other videographers, they found as many as 20 people who had fallen prey to the same scam over the course of two weeks. The group running the scam targeted victims on Facebook Marketplace, seeking out video pros in the LA area and insisting on Venmo payments to ensure a clean getaway. The person who showed up to pick up the goods varied, as did the Venmo account used — but the payment always came from an account with “Andy Mai” in the name, suggesting a single group behind all the scams. Each time one account got blocked, another account with a new variant of the name sprung up, ready for a new victim.
Consumer groups have been warning about similar scams since October, but this latest string of thefts has reached a remarkable scale. The Verge was able to verify four victims whose losses added up to $25,000 — although if all of Rasa’s reports are accurate, the total losses could be as high as $100,000.
We don’t know exactly why Rasa and Brendan’s accounts were frozen, but it’s likely that, one way or another, they were being paid with stolen money. When money is transferred from a stolen debit card or another compromised account, the standard response for money-transfer services like Venmo is often to freeze the funds so they can be returned to the rightful owner. In Rasa and Brendan’s case, that would have meant clawing back the money while the scammer made off with the goods.
If that’s what happened, the “Andy Mai” scammers would have found a new solution to a classic criminal problem: how to turn financial data into hard cash. Stolen debit card information routinely circulates on underground marketplaces, but the return on investment can vary greatly. Banks usually spot unauthorized withdrawals within 24 hours, and ATM limits cap conventional withdrawals at $200 per card. Criminals have found all sorts of creative schemes to raise those rates, and it’s possible that Mai was using Venmo and Facebook Marketplace as a way to squeeze more cash out of each card.
Reached by The Verge, a Venmo representative highlighted the dangers of transactions with strangers. “Venmo is designed for payments between friends and people who trust each other,” the representative wrote. “We strongly caution Venmo users to avoid payments with people they don’t know, especially if it involves the sale for goods and services (like event tickets and Craigslist items). These payments are potentially high risk, and can result in losing your money without getting what you paid for.” The company also emphasized its ongoing efforts to fight fraud on the system, which alert senders if there are indications that a particular transaction might violate the terms of service.
In most cases, however, Venmo’s fraud protections are focused on securing money as it leaves customer wallets. Users must confirm transactions out of their own wallets, and a suspicious description will often trigger a hold on the money. Unfortunately for Rasa and Brendan, there are few equivalent protections for users receiving money. There are no warnings indicating an incoming payment might be fraudulent, and in most cases, no way to halt a suspicious transaction as it comes in.
Brendan says if he’d known how easily the money in his account could be recalled, he never would have used Venmo for his transaction. He points to the service’s help page, where Venmo describes payments “like cash in a wallet.” That language, he says, gave him a false sense of security.
“The main issue I have with this entire situation is that Venmo knows this is happening, but they’re doing nothing,” Brendan told The Verge. “They’ve created a platform for criminals, and are placing the blame on their legitimate users, despite the incredibly misleading information on their website.”
It’s particularly disconcerting since Mai seems to have had more credit than the average Venmo user. In Brendan’s case, the scammer was able to send up to $3,000 before switching accounts — far beyond the standard $200 limit. Venmo users can only reach that limit after verifying their account, providing the company with a zip code, birthday, and the last four digits of their Social Security number, along with other documents in some cases. But with Mai running as many as six accounts at a time — and routinely being shut down for fraud — it’s unclear how he was able to keep the scam going for so long.
For Rasa, that verification is one of the most puzzling aspects of Mai’s scheme. “It just seems like such a blind eye,” he told The Verge.
In some ways, robust anti-fraud protections cut against Venmo’s unique advantage among payment services. Unlike eBay or conventional transaction methods, Venmo doesn’t exact a charge for transferring money. Those fees are typically justified as covering protections against fraud, an unnecessary expense if you’re only handling small transactions between friends. But it also means Venmo can’t support the anti-fraud services that have become standard for credit cards and online payment services.
Still, many Venmo users may not have grasped that a simpler, easier service may translate to less protection from fraud. As much as the service claims to warn users away from merchant transactions, Rasa still feels misled. “Venmo’s really playing the game of, ‘let’s be the easiest thing to do,’” Rasa says. “But it’s not really safe.”