Amr Alfiky / NPR
When copywriter Kelli Johnson moved to Los Angeles, she did not tell her parents that she would live with her boyfriend. Johnson, 27, grew up in Bakersfield, a few hours drive north.
"It's very conservative, very religious – my parents too," she says.
In Los Angeles, she pays the rent and her boyfriend puts Venmo in his half.
"And when he did, he put it in the memo line," says Johnson. "The month plus the little emoji of the house, and that's how my mom saw it."
His mother also uses Venmo. Johnson was busted.
Venmo has been around for a decade. And with millions of transactions – mostly public – the social nature of the application alters personal relationships, sometimes unexpectedly.
Richard Crone, payments expert and founder of Crone Consulting, bursts out laughing at Johnson's story.
"It reinforces our conclusions," he says. "Use case # 1 pays rent."
Crone estimates that about 39 million people use Venmo, which was launched in 2009 and then acquired through PayPal. The company has not confirmed the figure.
Venmo is used to pay or ask money to other people who use the application. It is usually linked to a bank account, although users can also connect a credit card for a fee. Every transaction has a memo line and the app suggests emoji instead of words for things like pizza, wine and rent.
Memos and emoji are public by default. Venmo also offers to synchronize phone contacts and Facebook of its users. So you can see how your friends – and all strangers – spend money and what they ask others to pay.
This visibility can be an advantage, says Crone.
"You want to pay that socially so that everyone knows that you are not a bad payer and that you have fulfilled your obligations," he says.
Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal, said that Venmo was the application of the generation of social networks. And he says that public nutrition is the essence of the application.
"It's really a social experience," Schulman told CNBC. "You make a payment, you mark it, you put an emoji next to it, you share it with your friends."
Some $ 19 billion changed hands on the application in the last quarter of last year, said Venmo. That was 80% more than the previous year.
All consumers do not know that they are broadcasting their payments. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission asked Venmo to make it clear to its customers that these transactions were public. She also demanded that the company facilitate the tightening of the confidentiality parameters of its customers.
Venmo says that it never records the amount of transactions and that customers can change their settings privately.
Private or not, the application allows you to give money instantly.
A woman in Baltimore said she paid a $ 350 grocery bill to a friend who had forgotten his wallet but had used Venmo to send the money due immediately. A man from San Francisco said that he was using the app to send birthday money to his friends – for a drinks tour.
He also gave employers an extra look. Patrick Matamoros sells high-end vintage t-shirts to celebrities in Los Angeles. He discovered that a worker had stolen a shirt and sold it. Matamoros said that he had seen the employee getting paid for a shirt on Venmo.
"And I said to myself, Hey, why did you sell my client a vintage t-shirt and that I do not know?" Said Matamoros. "He denied it of course.It was beyond a smoking gun."
Other people have noticed that when it's so easy to split a bill, it becomes an expectation.
"I am definitely less generous when I go out with my friends," said Matthew Masoud, an aerospace engineering student at the University of Cincinnati.
He says that he went to dinner with seven friends in a restaurant that would not separate. So he just paid for everyone – and then sent Venmo requests to each friend for the exact amount of the person.
"A friend of mine has ordered [a] pasta dish, I believe, and this one was like $ 13, "says Masoud.
Before Venmo, he said, he would have settled for the entire bill – and next time, someone else would have done so.
If Venmo changed Masoud's habits, it does not seem to have changed those of Kelli Johnson. Even after her mother discovered the living boyfriend, says Johnson, she has not changed her privacy settings. Why not?
"I have nothing to hide now!" Johnson says.
Maybe, she says, she'll think about it.
Janhvi Bhojwani contributed to this report.