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Venmo's Unfair and Abusive Arbitration Opt-Out Provision

posted by Adam Levitin

Venmo's changing the terms of its arbitration agreement, and the manner in which it is doing so is unfair and abusive to consumers. The CFPB and state attorneys general need to take action here to protect consumers.

Here's the story.  Last night I got an email from Venmo entitled "Upcoming Changes to Venmo." Nothing in the email's title (which is all I see on my devices) signals that there is a change in contractual terms, and I would have just deleted it without reading but for seeing consumer finance list-serv traffic light up about it.  So I looked at the email, and in the body it does explain that there are changes to the Venmo arbitration clause. It also tells me that I can opt-out of the Agreement to Arbitrate "by following the directions in the Venmo User Agreement by June 22, 2022".  The Venmo User Agreement is hyperlinked.  It is a 95 page document. The hyperlink takes me to the very top of the agreement, but the arbitration agreement starts on page 70.  It takes a lot of scrolling to get there, and nothing is particularly prominent about the arbitration agreement's text.

The arbitration agreement itself has a summary at the top that includes a few bullet points, one of which is "Requires you to follow the Opt-Out Procedure to opt-out of the Agreement to Arbitrate by mailing us a written notice." The term Opt-Out Procedure is a hyperlink to a form that can be printed (but not completed on-line).

What's so ridiculous about requiring a hand-written form to be sent through the mail is that Venmo will surely digitize the form. That means someone's gotta open the mail and do the data entry. Why not have the customer do that himself? Or for that matter, just have a check box on my Venmo account for opting out of the arbitration agreement? The only reason to use the paper form and posts is to make it harder for consumers to opt-out of the arbitration provision.

What Venmo's doing is unfair and abusive and therefore illegal under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. It's perfectly legal for Venmo to have an arbitration clause, and there is no requirement that consumers have a right to opt-out of arbitration, although a change in terms on an existing contract is a bit more complicated. Be that as it may, Venmo is the master of its offer, and by giving consumers a right to opt-out, but raising barriers to the exercise of that right, Venmo is engaging in an unfair or abusive act or practice. Venmo is trying to have its cake and eat it too, but pretending that consumers have a choice about arbitration, but not actually giving them one.

That's "unfair" under the Consumer Financial Protection Act because the practice makes it likely that consumers will lose their right to proceed as part of a class action. That is a substantial injury to consumers in aggregate. The ridiculous opt-out procedure makes this injury "not reasonably avoidable by consumers." The consumer would have to click on no less than two hypertext links, starting with an email the title of which gives no indication what is at stake, and then navigating through a 95 page agreement to find the second link. After that, the consumer must print, fill out, and mail a form. Whatever one thinks of the benefits of arbitration, there's no benefit to consumers or competition from making the opt-out difficult. To my mind, this is a very clearly unfair act or practice. It's also an "abusive" act or practice under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Because the terms of the opt-out make it so difficult for a consumer to actually exercise the opt-out, the terms of the opt-out "take unreasonable advantage of —the inability of the consumer to protect the interests of the consumer in...using a consumer financial product or service."  (One might also even be able to argue that it is a deceptive practice--the opt-out right has been buried in fine print and hypertext links.) 

Both the CFPB and state attorneys general have the ability to enforce the UDAAP provisions of the CFPA against nonbanks like Venmo. I hope the CFPB and state AGs get on Venmo about this. It presents a good opportunity for the Bureau to make clear what it expects in terms of fairness for contract term modification and opt-out rights.

Comments

Not sure I agree. Even if we assume the opt out provision is illusory (which it is not), the consumer is certainly in no worse position than if they couldn't opt out at all. Which as you note is perfectly legal. The consumer can always "opt out" by refusing to do business in the first place.

I recommend looking up the Intuit class action arbitration proceedings attack. The costs and mechanics of automating arbitration are such that this form of contesting mass abuses seems more effective than a class action lawsuit.
Venmo is behind the times in continuing to expose itself to such arbitration tactics.

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