Article Thumbnail

For Drug Dealers, Bookies and Sex Workers, the Venmo MasterCard Is a Dream Come True

With the bright pink card, cash stays in-house and your bank stays in the dark

For three years, Alex has been dealing Adderall to close friends. The 21-year-old Illinois college student earnestly started taking the prescription drugs for narcolepsy in 2014. But when she got to college, she quickly realized she could make a profit selling Adderall to frat boys looking to either study or rage all night. She started incrementally her sophomore year, trading a few Addys to her sorority sisters for straight cash. Quickly, though, she became known for her signature deal: two pills for $5. Now a senior set to graduate in May, Alex, a pseudonym, is selling 120 pills a month and turning a $250 profit, $300 if it’s finals week. And thanks to the Venmo MasterCard, no one — not even her bank — has to know. “It’s all under the radar,” Alex tells me. “I wanted one as soon as I saw it.”

To state the obvious, over the past few years, Venmo has gained a devoted following — and even saved PayPal — as a faster alternative to Chase QuickPay that works across nearly all banks and eliminates the need to get or give cash for bar tabs and Uber rides split among friends, partners, etc. But Venmo isn’t without its drawbacks. Namely: To make an out-of-app purchase or cash out, Venmo requires the money be transferred to a user’s private bank account. Even worse, Venmo doesn’t process bank transfer requests immediately. And so, transfers can take up to three business days to process — and forget about weekends. Transfers made after business hours on a Friday won’t post until Monday. This means that for college kids with nocturnal lifestyles, they’re barred from accessing their funds when going out the same day. (Admittedly, there is a 1 percent instant fee, but it’ll cost anywhere from $0.25 to $10.)

The Venmo MasterCard, however, rights these wrongs. It’s essentially a refillable MasterCard or Visa debit card you can pick up wherever gift cards are sold. Better yet, because it’s not an actual credit card, there’s no application process or reward system. The Venmo balance acts as the pre-paid amount. In other words, if the account’s empty, the card is declined.

On Twitter, the joke is anyone with a Venmo card is either a drug dealer or a sex worker. After all, who else would be so frequently inconvenienced by the transfer delay or fee to actually need the card? It’s funny, of course, because it’s true. For Alex and other Venmo users with high balances, the card cuts out the banking middle-man, making it an insider secret for the side-hustler. Alex, for instance, often forgot to transfer over her drug profits before the weekend blackout, leaving her to purchase $1 well drinks and drunk McDonald’s with her debit card.

She reasoned then that the Venmo card just might be the perfect solution. A few weeks later, a bubblegum-pink card with the word “Venmo” sprawled across the front came in the mail. Her first impression: “It looks like I’m playing with a little girl’s cashier card.”

The fake-looking Venmo card (the barcode, cardholder name and expiration date are all on the back), though, became a very real asset for Jake, a 22-year-old college student moonlighting as a bookie. With a network of nearly 50 gamblers to manage and a head bookie to answer to, he’s constantly receiving and sending low increments of money. In fact, during the NFL season, he sees anywhere from $500 to $800 for just one game. “[The card] is a pretty good thing to have for someone of my background since I don’t have to back it financially,” explains Jake, which like with Alex, is also a pseudonym; instead, he receives money from the head bookie to distribute among the bettors. After paying out winning clients and the head bookie, he keeps 20 percent of the profits — up to $1,000 a week across multiple games.

Not surprisingly, it’s after Sunday Night Football when Jake’s Venmo balance is at its highest, a balance that rarely goes back to his bank or any kind of savings. It’s mostly liquid cash he uses as spending money. “When I get money in Venmo, it’s just going to be going toward dollar wells,” he says. “You get Venmo money, and you lose it.”

Avoiding the bank — and maybe more importantly, its transfer fees — is crucial for Alex. Chase once called her, asking for proof of intent and background information, after she transferred more than $1,000. Of her many deposits, Alex was surprised it was this one that got flagged. “That money wasn’t from dealing. That was just from my brother.” Still, she was spooked and started wondering if a $300 Venmo balance from dealing would go through. “It’d be sitting there, and I’d be waiting to determine when it was worth to transfer over,” she says. Now with the Venmo card, the money stays in-house and Chase stays in the dark.

Back on the app, Jake and Alex both try to avoid attention on the social feed. In particular, because one too many clever messages might give away her side hustle to a bot compiling messages with drug-related keywords — as opposed to a generic fuel pump, pizza or beer emoji (or the words “food,” “rent” or “Uber”) — Alex asks her friends to come up with silly captions. “Most people just write, ‘Study files,’ to make it seem like I’m helping them with homework or tutoring them,” she says. “It’s always stupid things like that.”

And despite the chatter on Twitter about the Venmo card, neither Alex nor Jake are worried that merely being in possession of the brightly colored piece of plastic will out them as a dealer or bookie. “People think I’m being extra, and I wanted the Venmo card just to be like, ‘Oh, I have a Venmo card,’” says Alex. So for now at least, she’s comfortably (and profitably) hiding in plain sight: “If you’re not into whatever we’re doing, it makes sense you think it’s stupid and an extra thing to carry around.” Plus, she adds, “They must not have the money in their Venmo balance.”