By Mike Pomranz
Updated December 29, 2016
cuban food venmo
Credit: © Bloomberg / Juanmonino / Getty Images

You don’t have to lie to me. I know all the illegal things you’ve been doing with your Venmo account: paying your pot dealer, settling gambling debts, taking cash under the table for your unregistered image consulting business. (Yup, I know about that one too!) Hell, trying to split the bill at a Cuban restaurant is probably the least illegal thing you use Venmo for – but ironically enough, that’s exactly the kind of activity that can get your account flagged.

As BuzzFeed posted in an article this week, a group of coworkers at the website “learned this the hard way” after trying to split the bill on “a delicious Cuban lunch for four.” When requesting payment, the sender labeled the transaction as simply “Cuban” as a reminder. But that lone word turned out to be enough to get a couple of the payments flagged for review. “We’re reaching out in hopes that you can help us better understand a recent payment on your account,” a Venmo Customer Support email later stated. “Venmo is a fully regulated Money Service Business committed to providing users a safe and easy way to send and receive payments. This means that we are also responsible for complying with U.S. Sanctions administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).” In other words, Venmo suspected the payments might be a user doing illegal business with the communist nation… perpetrated by the most overt criminal ever – with the exception of someone dimwitted enough to label their illegal payment as “Illegal Payment to Cuba.”

Once flagged, Venmo users are given 15 days to submit “the purpose of this payment, including a detailed explanation of what you intended to pay for and the establishment, individual(s) or location you referred to in your note, as applicable.” It’s enough to make you start brown bagging your work lunch.

A quick search of social media showed that what happened to the BuzzFeed crew is far from an isolated incident. Twitter users have shared similar Venmo experience on everything from “dirty dancing Havana nights” to accidentally writing “Cuba” instead of “Cubs.”


According to BuzzFeed, part of the issue is that money transfer companies are legally required to be proactive when it comes to preventing unlawful activity. “PayPal takes its regulatory and compliance obligations seriously, including U.S. economic and trade sanctions administered by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control,” a spokesperson for PayPal, owner of Venmo, was quoted as saying.

The moral: Be careful what you write when labeling your Venmo transactions. The last thing you want from a casual business lunch is to end up on some sort of government watch list.