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

from the EXPORTING-OUR-STUPIDITY dept

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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  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:04pm

    Spot the PayPal account owners who from now on will be turned back at the border.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:12pm

    Easy Solution

    Encourage everyone to donate to their Republican or Democrat of choice via Paypal with the words Syrian and Cuba in the title.

    When there are millions of political dollars tied up in Paypal's "good enough" effort, something will change one way or another.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Wyrm (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:23pm

      Re: Easy Solution

      Given PayPal's reaction here, you just need to act yourself: send one dollar to each senator and MP you know. That will flag both your and their accounts, so they can't receive any new contribution. (Use burner accounts yourself.)

      The political reaction will surely be pretty quick.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:13pm

    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."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:20pm

      Re:

      remember that most people cannot get any attention from the press when PayPal screws them over. Therefore the stories that make the press are the tip of an iceberg.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:57pm

        Re: Re:

        well... paypal's stories have been more than informative enough for me to know better than to use the service.

        A smart person learns from their own mistakes...
        A Wise person learns from others mistakes...
        A fool learns nothing.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Mason Wheeler (profile), 14 Feb 2017 @ 7:10am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2017 @ 7:28am

          Re: Re: Re:

          So you will take literally a common metaphor to try and protect the corporations, while ignoring the damage that such asset seizures can cause to individuals and small businesses.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 14 Feb 2017 @ 9:46am

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:31pm

      Re:

      Bull.

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      BentFranklin (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:09pm

      Re:

      Hey Mason, I have some funds to send you via Paypal. What's your email address?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      William Braunfeld, 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:19pm

      An Engineer's Maxim:

      That few run afoul of a broken system does not make the system any less broken.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      David (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 2:14pm

      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 PayPal.com 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).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Roger Strong (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 2:55pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Jeremy2020 (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 2:39pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2017 @ 6:36pm

      Re:

      serious mistakes tend to happen at an average rate of less than one per month!

      Do you have valid data for that number or did you just pull it out of your a$$?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 14 Feb 2017 @ 3:42am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Eldakka (profile), 14 Feb 2017 @ 4:18am

      Re:

      Did you first word your own comment?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2017 @ 5:17am

      Mason, take off your blinders

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

      http://www.paypalsucks.com/

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:18pm

    Who started asset seizures on a whim first, PayPal or the Cops?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:32pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mononymous Tim (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 12:47pm

    Next stupid keyword of the month

    Hopefully PayPal never finds out that SY is the country code top-level domain for Syria.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:04pm

    Paypal has minimal competition. If you don't like their service there's not much you are going to be able do about it.

    It's easy to see why Peter Thiel likes to praise monopoly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ryunosuke (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:07pm

    I am SOOO glad that we also rule Canada as well as south of the "border", can we (as the US) ban or kick out the Quebecois?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nate (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:10pm

    So basically this means I can nuke accounts belonging to the Red Cross, political campaigns, charities, and my enemies - just by mentioning Syria?

    DOS attacks should not be that easy. It's no fun anymore.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nate (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:10pm

    So basically this means I can nuke accounts belonging to the Red Cross, political campaigns, charities, and my enemies - just by mentioning Syria?

    DOS attacks should not be that easy. It's no fun anymore.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:21pm

      Re:

      "Red Cross" sounds like a torture device and will as such be whitelisted even in connection with Syria.

      I mean, it is the U.S. we are talking about here.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 2:08pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Erik, 13 Feb 2017 @ 5:11pm

    Not a good policy

    Everyone with an account should send a payment with a restricted word in it. With no transactions PayPal would close down after a day.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2017 @ 3:55am

    "That's the problem with keyword flagging. All it's ever going to do is produce false positives and inconvenience hundreds of non-terrorists."

    Hundreds? At least no one will be able to accuse Tim Cushing of exaggerating.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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