Capital InsightsTechnology & Security

How to Stay Safe With Online Payment Tools

Online scams are growing increasingly prevalent, and they continue to get smarter. I remember a family friend who fell victim to a call claiming that his granddaughter was in jail in Mexico and the only way to get her home was to buy various gift cards. It’s easy for us to look in hindsight and identify it as a scam, but who can blame him? The scammer manufactured a nightmare scenario, and he wanted to keep his family safe.

We know some of the patterns to look out for in more traditional scams, but how are they different in newer forms of payment like Zelle and Venmo?

Tip #1: Only use these services with people you trust

When paying someone new on Venmo, it will prompt you to enter the last four digits of their phone number, which is a way to make sure you are sending money to the correct person. Once you have confirmed you are sending money to the correct person, consider adding them as a friend so that you reduce the chances of accidentally sending money to the wrong person in the future. Zelle prompts you to search by email or phone number, making it more difficult to accidentally send it to the wrong account.

Tip #2: Be Wary of Using These Forms of Payment When Buying or Selling Online

When buying or selling items on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or other similar platforms, scams are particularly prevalent. One I have seen most often is when the seller gets a notification that the buyer paid them using a Zelle business account. In order to receive the money, the seller needs to upgrade to a Zelle business account for a fee. Conveniently, these scammers provide either a phone number, email address, or a link to submit payment for this upgrade. It’s not possible to “upgrade” your Zelle account, so this is one way to identify that someone is trying to scam you.

Tip #3: Be Skeptical of Communication

A great way to avoid scams is to never click on a link or contact anyone from suspicious messages you receive. It’s better to go to your account through a trusted method rather than assuming that the message you have received is legitimate. Don’t trust incoming calls either, as it is possible for someone to “spoof” a legitimate phone number – meaning that when someone calls you, they are calling from a different phone number than is shown on your caller ID.

Another popular scam is for someone supposedly from your bank to call you and “notify” you that you were a victim of a scam through Zelle or another online payment tool. It appears to be from your bank and the phone number looks legitimate, but this is not the case. It’s best not to give out your information when someone calls you. Instead, tell the caller you will call back later. If it is a trusted source, they should have no problem with you taking a moment to protect yourself, but if it is a scammer, they will likely try to keep you on the line or get you to call a different number.

Tip #4: Treat Online Payments Like Cash

Credit card companies will often not hold you accountable for fraudulent activity on your card, but the same isn’t true for Zelle, Venmo, and other online payment options. If you treat it like cash and assume that you can’t get it back, you can better protect your money. If you’re not likely to lend a stranger cash, don’t do the same online, even if it is disguised as verifying your identity or account information.

Tip #5: Ask Someone You Trust

While not the most fool-proof method, getting a second opinion is always a good option. Perhaps a family member or friend saw the same scam recently and would be able to help you. When doing this, make sure to not forward the message, attachments, or links to them. Instead, ask them in person or send a screenshot of the message to ensure that there is nothing that could compromise their device.


In summary, the key to staying safe with online payment tools is to keep adapting and always be skeptical. Once a scam proves to be ineffective, they will try something new. While it’s difficult to recover any money that was stolen from you in a scam, employing these tips could help you avoid falling victim to them.