Anthony MacDonald was perplexed when $16 and a hamburger emoji showed up in his Venmo account from Zach Brown. The name didn’t ring a bell.
More money followed: a $35 payment, then $19. Another $15 arrived with a mysterious message: “Meatbal shop without gada.”
That’s when the 27-year-old, who works in youth ministry at a church in Delaware, decided he should stop taking Mr. Brown’s lunch money.
With the rise of money-transfer apps such as PayPal Holdings Inc.’s Venmo, it’s never been easier for people to send money to their friends. It’s also never been easier to accidentally send money to a total stranger.
Getting the money back is often far more difficult: Many digital payments are irreversible.
For the recipient, it’s the equivalent of finding cash on the sidewalk— except it comes with a moral quandary.
At first, Mr. Brown’s errant Venmos amused Mr. MacDonald. “Keep it coming,” he jokingly tweeted.
But after talking it over with colleagues at his church, he decided the charitable thing to do was fess up.
He returned the last $15 payment but not the other $70, which he’d already transferred to his bank account.
“Sorry man,” he wrote on Venmo to Mr. Brown, whose apparent mistake was turning McDonald into MacDonald. Mr. Brown didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Venmo links to bank accounts or credit cards of users identified by unique handles, letting them send payment to other Venmo users with just a few taps on their phones. The app allows users to include a message with their payments; emojis are popular.
Users can search or scroll through lists of others who are on the service, but typing one wrong letter can pull up the wrong person with a similar handle or name.
New money transfer services have popped up; a consortium of banks launched their own money transfer app, Zelle, last year.
allows people to transfer cash through its Messenger app.
But Venmo, founded in 2009, popularized money transfer apps as a way to quickly repay friends. Much like Uber, the ride-sharing service, Venmo became ubiquitous and morphed into a verb.
Venmo, which moved around $12 billion in payments in the first quarter, according to the company, doesn’t publicly report how often money is sent to the wrong person. In an age of instant money transfers via mobile apps, it’s no longer an uncommon phenomenon. People can make the same mistake on other, similar apps.
In the six years since its public launch, Venmo has incorporated several fail-safe measures to prevent mistaken payments, according to a Venmo spokeswoman. An algorithm now flags payments to new recipients. Venmo also added profile pictures, which can help identify the right person. There’s also the option of using codes that are unique to each user.
Accidental payments still make it through the system. Venmo advises users who mess up to send a message through the app requesting the money’s return.
Emily Dunn, a student at San Jose State University in California sent about $45 to a friend named Riley along with a humorous message. He was confused when she later asked if he thought her message was funny. She had mixed up his last name, sending the money to the wrong Riley.
Panicked, Ms. Dunn sent Riley-the-stranger a payment request. After several days brought no response, she figured it was hopeless. Finally, on day four, Ms. Dunn got a transfer notification. Stranger Riley had returned the money.
“GOOD PEOPLE DO EXIST!!” Ms. Dunn gushed on Twitter.
Nick Abouzeid, a 21-year-old in San Francisco who works at a tech startup, received an unexpected $149 from a stranger along with the message “for a wonderful evening.” Two minutes later, he got another message: “I again made a mistake (((.”
He decided to investigate. (The app allows users to view the transaction history of others, depending on their privacy settings.) The account, he found, was brand new. He ran the user’s profile picture through Google’s reverse image search engine and saw it used in other places. He also saw the user sent money to another person ”for lesbian game,” and a minute later wrote to that person: “wrong person, please refund.”
Mr. Abouzeid was convinced it was a scam.
“At that point I had no sympathy,” he said.
The user continued to plead for the money. “I was just wrong! Stop spoiling my life Nicholas.” Another message request for $149: “Swindler, return my money, I was wrong!!”
Mr. Abouzeid shared the messages with Venmo customer support and some friends. Venmo, he said, canceled the $149 transfer before Mr. Abouzeid moved it to his bank account. The company said it has procedures in place to deal with fraudulent transactions.
One friend sent the user $2. “Don’t let Nicholas bring you down!” he wrote on Venmo. “What a buzzkill.” The account is no longer active.
Some Venmo users don’t even notice that they’ve sent money to the wrong person.
Gerald Woods never heard back from a Venmo user he didn’t know, who sent him almost $200 that Mr. Woods deduced was meant for another Gerald Woods.
Mr. Woods, who owns a moving company in Minneapolis, asked his Facebook friends what he should do with the money.
Several of them advised him to enjoy the good fortune, Mr. Woods said. “Mailbox blessing?” one friend wrote. “Depends on the amount,” another posted.
Mr. Woods decided to return the money. “If you have any type of spiritual connection, whether you call it karma, or the universe, it comes back to you in some way,” he said.
Some friends were unimpressed. One sent him an animated GIF of a dog shaking its head, and another suggested Mr. Woods had fallen for a scam.
All he got from the mistaken sender was a terse thank you.
“It was a little less than I expected,” Mr. Woods said. “A tip, maybe?”
Write to Telis Demos at firstname.lastname@example.org