PayPal Kills Canadian Paper's Submission To Media Awards Because Article Had Word 'Syrian' In The Title


PayPal is ubiquitous. And that’s unfortunate. Over the years, the payment platform has earned a reputation for acting in a way that can charitably be described as “hellishly inconsistent.” For little to no reason, users have found their accounts shut down or suspended. And, thanks to US laws meant to prevent the PayPal-ing of material support to foreign terrorists, PayPal has been suspending accounts for innocuous payments containing certain trigger words in the descriptions.

The latest victim of PayPal’s inscrutable policies and unapproachable customer service is a small Canadian newspaper. As the CBC reports, the small paper’s attempt to enter a few of its stories for consideration for national newspaper awards resulted in the bricking of both the sender’s and the receiver’s accounts.

A community newspaper’s payment to enter a feel-good story about a family of Syrian refugees in an awards competition prompted PayPal to freeze the account of a national media organization after flagging the suspicious transaction, The Canadian Press has learned.


The weekly Flin Flon Reminder entered the article — titled “Syrian family adapts to new life” — last month as part of its submissions to the annual Canadian Community Newspaper Awards. The feature story from July 2016 outlines the challenges and triumphs as the family settled in the Manitoban town of 5,100 and the community’s willingness to make them feel welcome.

The word “Syrian” set off PayPal’s auto-monitor, which blocked the Flin Flon Reminder’s $240 in entry fees. (To be considered for the awards, submitters must pay $60 per article submitted — and it would appear Flin Flon submitted four of them.)

It would be one thing if the payment was flagged and then reviewed. But nothing in the story suggests PayPal took a second look at this until a larger media outfit — the CBC — started asking questions.

PayPal didn’t limit itself to killing the sender’s account. It suspended the receiver’s account as well.

This week, Durnin called News Media Canada — formerly Newspaper Canada — to find out what had happened. They realized PayPal had frozen the News Media Canada account, said Nicole Bunt, who processes the awards entries.

PayPal supposedly reviews flagged payments within 72 hours. No one involved heard anything from PayPal until after the CBC’s inquiries. The belated response from PayPal: “Um… US law mumble mumble mumble.”

“You may be buying or selling goods or services that are regulated or prohibited by the U.S. government,” PayPal said in an email to News Media Canada.

Oh, really? This is some spectacular review work by PayPal, considering both the sender and the receiver are located entirely in Canada. While US law may govern US transactions processed by the company, they should have little to no effect on completely extraterritorial transactions.

And the sole reason for PayPal’s dual account nuking? The word “Syrian” being in the submission to the newspaper awards.

The note also requested a “complete and detailed explanation of the transaction” and the purpose of the payment, which identified with the story’s headline.

That’s the problem with keyword flagging. All it’s ever going to do is produce false positives and inconvenience hundreds of non-terrorists. The algorithms deployed by PayPal are looking for terms no terrorist is going to use when transferring funds to allies. It works on the stupidest of assumptions: that memo lines are going to filled with suspicious keywords when actual nefarious transactions are taking place.

If you’re going to build a US law-compliant service that relies on tragically flawed logic, the least you can do is actually review flagged transactions in a timely manner and provide actual people customers can talk to, to sort out these issues.

Instead, PayPal appears to have left this payment-vetting process to the machines and made it all but impossible to speak to someone who might be able to derive something from context. And it makes it worse by subjecting other countries to US law, whether or not the flagged transaction violates laws in the country where the funds are changing hands.

Then there’s this kicker at the end of the CBC article.

PayPal did not immediately explain its process.

Yeah. Or EVER. That’s the other problem. Go ahead and CYA by flagging keywords and keeping your Terms of Use vaguely-written and open to often-baffling interpretations. But do your customers a favor and at least answer questions about the specifics of their flagged transactions. At the very least, it would show some human has eyes on the process. If you can’t be proactive, at least be usefully reactive.

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Companies: flin flon reminder, news media canada, paypal

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Comments on “PayPal Kills Canadian Paper's Submission To Media Awards Because Article Had Word 'Syrian' In The Title”

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Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Yeah, horror stories like this come up regularly: you tend to consistently hear about a half-dozen screwups out of PayPal every year.

To put this in perspective, PayPal moves billions of transactions and hundreds of billions of dollars in payments every year, through virtually every country in the world, and amid all that, serious mistakes tend to happen at an average rate of less than one per month!

TLDR: There are far too many sensationalistic journalists out there who do not understand the concept of "epsilon."

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Do you know how big the tip of an iceberg is? About 10% of the whole.

Multiplying the reported stories by a factor of 10, or even by a factor of 1000, would make no real difference in the underlying point, which is that they get everything right the vast majority of times. The cases where things go wrong are such a minuscule fraction as to be negligible, (see “epsilon,” above,) and it’s highly irresponsible for journalists to paint them as a bunch of habitual screwups when nothing could be further from the truth.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: A statistical blip and not worthy of attention... until it happens to you.

PayPal supposedly reviews flagged payments within 72 hours. No one involved heard anything from PayPal until after the CBC’s inquiries. The belated response from PayPal: "Um… US law mumble mumble mumble."

"Oops, our automated system accidentally flagged your transaction as suspicious and temporarily stopped it before we reviewed it and let it go through", that is a mistake that would be expected and not worthy of coverage.

"Oops, our automated system accidentally flagged your transaction as suspicious and froze both accounts, and the only reason we’re doing anything about it is because you got enough press attention that we have to in order to do damage control" goes well beyond that and most certainly is worth coverage.

Such ‘mistakes’ might be a decided minority now, but if they aren’t called out when they screw up on something this obvious then you can be sure that they’ll only get worse, because fixing the problem takes work, which means money, which means less profits, whereas just dismissing it as no big deal is quick and free.

The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that it exists, even if the problem is statistically tiny. If you can’t even get past that step then things will only get worse.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:


This isn’t a case of immigrants sending money back home to the middle east, which might be a grey area or require further scrutiny. It’s merely “Syria” mentioned in a story.

This isn’t the newspaper accidently running afoul of US laws. The US laws mentioned were not applicable in Canada.

This isn’t a case of PayPal flagging the payment for review within 72 hours, then letting it proceed. They STOPPED it, locked both accounts, and went to radio silence.

This isn’t a one-off. It’s three ways in which PayPal’s operation is fundamentally wrong. If you actually believe your “average rate of less than one per month” claim, I have some inauguration crowd figures to sell you.

David (profile) says:

Re: Well BS on your Paypal excuse.

Just running grep on messages and locking accounts is just bad business as well as being a bad script kiddie.

Never reviewing until the media picks up the story is a flag. That flag indicates that is run by A: script kiddies, B: people that don’t take their job seriously (see A), C: people that want to keep their customers money whenever they want to while refusing to review their fancy scripts (See B).

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Well BS on your Paypal excuse.

Occasionally you read about a senior found in their apartment years after they died. Their pension went into their bank account and their rent and bills automatically went out, so no-one noticed anything except for maybe a bad smell.

All I’m saying is that maybe PayPal should check on their script kiddies and support staff.

Jeremy2020 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You fail to account that this story is representative. They only got it resolved because of the increased media attention on this particular story. There’s many, many more out there where people have been screwed over by Paypal.

The very idea that because you only hear about a “few” stories excuses the fact that these are basically unchallengeable is crazy. Couple that with the idea that it shut down the recipient’s account too and it’s wide open for abuse with many people who will never be able to get media attention and thus a resolution to the problem.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

And comcast is very good at providing customer service & those few times they screwed people out of thousands for years until the media called them are just a tiny fraction of the fucking over they do.

PayPal is a willing victim of a stupid law, who have taken their duties to the extreme. They face nothing bad when they screw up, but huge penalties if they failed to act. Its safer to act, remain mum, and pocket the cash they client won’t ever be able to get back.

Perhaps it is time to stop deputizing corporations that work internationally to enforce US laws, that or open them up to penalties for being overzealous. Until they have to pay out for incorrectly locking accounts, they will not improve the system.

Tech can’t magically fix everything, its time our laws reflect that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Mason, take off your blinders

Are you trying to get a job in PayPal customer service?

Read a few of those stories. After you do you will see that you are right in the fact that statistically the number of incorrect account freezes is small compared to the total number of transactions. If you really open your eyes though you will see that there is no recourse or remedy.

Anonymous Coward says:

US law

While US law may govern US transactions processed by the company, they should have little to no effect on completely extraterritorial transactions.

PayPal is a US company. They have to comply with US law even if it’s two non-US entities sending money. (That said, none of the attempted transactions would have violated US law.)

And it makes it worse by subjecting other countries to US law

PayPal has made many bad choices, but this isn’t one—it’s the US government that has chosen to apply US law here.

David (profile) says:

Paypal fucking up had one benefit for me.

The story of paypal keeping $300k of Notch’s payments from Minecraft users led me to Minecraft and I bought it. They seized the money because nobody could be making that much money on a video game, not and run it through paypal anyway. Well, they were right. Because paypal is run by hamfisted script kiddies, “Yeah, just grep Syrian. That’ll work fine and we get to keep the money.”

Of course, ever since I keep a close eye on Paypal and their playing loose with morals, choices, scripts and random bullshit.

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