Venmo and Paypal Are Stalling Urgent Efforts to Bail People Out of Jail

Transfer limits and security freezes are stalling efforts to get people free from jail in the middle of a pandemic.
June 12, 2020, 3:43pm
A protester with their hands up.
Image: VICE News Tonight

Covid Bail Out NYC, a group raising funds to get people out of jails during the coronavirus pandemic, has a list of hundreds of people waiting to be bailed out.

But because of constant security freezes and transfer limits imposed by PayPal and its mobile payment service Venmo, the group is only able to bail out around five people— $20,000 worth of cash bail—per week.

Coronavirus spreads like wildfire in prisons and jails. In response to the pandemic, several grassroots bail out organizations popped up, using community outreach, social media, and payment processing platforms like PayPal, Venmo, and Cash App to raise funds quickly. The crisis became even more urgent during the Black Lives Matter protests, as police arrested and jailed thousands of demonstrators across the U.S. in late May and June.

Some groups have raised tens of thousands of dollars in just a few short weeks, but in several cases, the money is stalled by payment platforms because of weekly transfer limits and security locks on their accounts.

Payment platforms weren't ready for new accounts to start receiving hundreds of dollars per hour. And what they're doing in response, in many cases, is not enough.

According to Gabby Ferrara, a spokesperson for the Covid Bail Out NYC fund, a typical bail that Covid Bail Out NYC pays is set for around $5,000. Each bail out fund operates differently, but for their fund:

  • In-person volunteers either pick up a check from an organizer, written out for a specific amount of the bail that's set which comes from money raised through donations made on PayPal or Venmo, and takes it to post bail, or,
  • Online bail posters front the money from their own bank accounts and are either sent the money in advance through PayPal, or are reimbursed later.

For Covid Bail Out NYC, this process starts to break down because of payment platform's transfer limits. On Venmo, users can transfer up to $19,999.99 per week to a bank account, according to its site, and the single largest amount one can transfer to a bank account at one time is $2,999.99.

"It's totally within the power of these massive tech companies to facilitate moving these funds."

PayPal's limits are higher. Users can transfer up to $60,000 a week, but may be limited to $10,000 in a single transaction, and accounts can request for those limits to be raised, according to its site. But unusual activity—like a mutual aid fund going viral on Twitter and having its account flooded with donations, for example—could trip PayPal's fraud monitoring service. Those holds can stay on an account for weeks, according to PayPal.

Ferrara told Motherboard that Covid Bail Out NYC has been trying to work around these limitations for weeks.

Another fund I talked to, which asked to remain anonymous because they're working with the payment platforms to fix the issue, told me that they've lost thousands of dollars in donations through Venmo because the platform rejected the payments coming in, and sent the money back to the donors.

"Essentially what they're doing is preventing organizers from accessing the money they've raised to get people out of jail," a spokesperson for that organization told me. "In turn, all of their bureaucratic hurdles are creating a huge amount of additional labor for people who are already very overwhelmed doing rapid response work. It's totally within the power of these massive tech companies to facilitate moving these funds."

"Both PayPal and Venmo provide fee-free options to send, receive and transfer funds and we have been working diligently to ensure customers and community organizations raising funds using both platforms have quick access to money raised to aid in their cause," a PayPal spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement. "Our teams have been working with organizations to understand their needs and work to find solutions to ensure that critical payments can be made and transferred to parties in need. We encourage anyone who is encountering difficulties accessing their funds to contact customer service teams who remain dedicated to helping customers access funds quickly and efficiently."

PayPal and Venmo said they have activated "rapid response teams" to address the concerns of fundraisers, and that they are very aware of the issues organizations Covid Bail Out NYC and others are having.

Following complaints and pressure from these grassroots organizations, PayPal also said it's working with third-party organizations like the Community Justice Exchange to streamline the process of transferring funds.

"We have reached out to them on the chat platform multiple times," Ferrara said. "They said I tried too many times to send to one person… and they said that you have to wait like four days, in order for that security hold to clear. Other times, like last week, we sent approximately $10,000 to two different volunteers, and after that, I couldn't send any more payments for a few days." There's no predictability in terms of how much they'll be able to transfer each week, she said.

"Right now, we can't even transfer money because they have some sort of internal security thing… The answer that we always get is that nobody can ever lift the internal security holds," Ferrara said. "Nobody can touch it—how is that possible you created this, and you can't override it?"