Noor Ahmed’s friends liked to tease her because she didn’t use Venmo, a must-have app for many millennials who use it to split restaurant checks and send money back and forth on their smartphones. So Ahmed, a 31-year-old pharmaceutical marketer in New York, decided to sign up.
Normally, signing up for Venmo
is easy. You just type in a bank card number and add contact info, typically via a Facebook account. Part of Venmo’s popularity is its simplicity. But that wasn’t the case for Ahmed.
When she tried to sign up last year, Venmo refused to add her. The company sent her an email instead, asking Ahmed to provide a stack of additional information to verify her identity.
What followed was the opposite of simplicity: Ahmed had to obtain paper copies of her utility bills as well bank statements, and then find a fax machine (a practically unheard of technology for many younger people) to send them to Venmo.
After complying with this rigamarole, Ahmed still was unable to sign on to Venmo. She finally gave up and decided she would just carry on repaying friends with cash and PayPal.
So what happened? Fortune sought an explanation from Venmo and, based on responses from the company, the short answer is that Ahmed got caught between Venmo and the U.S. Treasury Department.
It turns out that she, like thousands of other Americans, shares a name with someone on a list created by a Treasury group called the Office of Foreign Assets Control. This list is called “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons,” and includes (on page 33) a 41-year-old Afghan man also named Noor Ahmed.
The New York-based Ahmed, said she is familiar with such mix-ups.
“I was born and raised in California, but I’m taken into secondary customs at the airport no matter what because of my name,” said Ahmed. “I think it’s now extending to other parts of my life.”
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As for Venmo, the company explained that it is obliged by law to screen for such matches, and that it tries to clear up cases of mistaken identity.
“Please note that upon verification of any false positive matches, it is our policy to remove any restrictions on an account,” said a spokesperson by email. “In this case, the user’s name was an exact match to one on the SDN list and we were required to follow this process to resolve this.”
In Ahmed’s case, even after she submitted the documents last year and received an email saying the restrictions had been lifted, she still could not sign on. Ahmed tried once more last week, however, and it now appears the app is now working.
According to Venmo, it typically takes 72 hours to clear a hold in the case of a false positive. The company did not disclose how it explains the restriction process to blocked users, and declined to provide specifics about the verification process beyond stating “it varies.”
Ahmed says she has no ill will towards Venmo, only that she felt frustration that the app’s easy-to-use reputation did not prove true for her.
“We’re a generation of everyone doing things with their phones,” she said. “I don’t like it when technology doesn’t work, it kind of kills my vibe.”