PayPal's Electronic Profiling: Killing Business in Africa?

Published on 8th September 2009

PayPal: a global leader in online payment solutions Photo courtesy 

I don’t know whether it’s laziness, callousness, indifference or all three but PayPal, intentional or not, are sending a very strong message to the rest of the world about Africa. Before I go any further, let me clarify that this is a rant. It’s about PayPal and how they seem to be ‘profiling’ users based on IP. It’s the new millennium equivalent of ‘driving while (insert minority group here)’. If rants irk you…good, that’s what they were invented to do.)

A Personal Example

For the past year I’ve been living in Uganda. Prior to coming here I’ve been a Pay Pal user for around four years. I estimate that in my years using the service, I’ve used it transfer well over $100,000 if you add up transactions both ways over the past four years. This was because I used to sell and buy lots of things on ebay but these days it’s because I use paypal to pay for a lot of goods and services internationally. Most recently I began using to send and receive payments to and from clients or employees.

I don’t know whether high levels of financial transactions via Paypal makes me a valued customer or a suspect in their eyes but their actions seem to indicate the later.

Apparently getting paid via paypal, or paying people via paypal is a crime if you’re accessing the site from outside of certain ‘trusted’ countries. This is absurd because the whole idea behind sites like PayPal is to mobilize financial transactions. We live in a global world these days. In 2006 I used Pay Pal from 20+ countries throughout Eastern and Western Europe, In 2007 I used it several times from Mexico, in 2008 I used it as I traveled across ten states in the US and now I’m using it from Uganda. However, if I had to give my mailing address it would be in either Colorado or Georgia depending on how soon I needed whatever the mailed item was.

Some might call me a ‘jet-setter’ others might simply say, “I traveled more than that THIS YEAR!?!” It depends on who you’re talking to and it’s a trend that’s only going to increase as families and businesses spread out across cities, countries and continents. Obviously there are a lot of financial and phishing scams that originate from the continent. Pay Pal is absolutely right to attempt to curb them. Pay Pal is absolutely wrong to red flag a continent of a billion people as being criminals, and that’s essentially what they’re doing. How so?

The Customer’s Always Self-Righteous

Apparently PayPal’s way of ‘policing’ their service is to simply flag various IP addresses as being ’suspect.’ I have a few Iranian and Indian friends who could tell you a bit about what it’s like to get profiled based on where you appear to be from. (And if they won’t suffice as anecdotal evidence, I’ve got a few million mexican and black american friends who’d double down on the sentiment.) Still, I get the fact that Pay Pal may need to increase security in certain areas because of the liabilities of operating across various borders. Some countries actually aren’t friendly to international law; they defy it to spite other governments. Fair enough, protect the customer’s investments.

So Africa remains a high-risk zone as the sheer number of comments like these from paypal users indicates:

I am in the process of trying to sell a laptop. I have posted ads on comtrader and ebay. So far the item has been bought off ebay by a mother who wants it for a present for her daughter in AFRICA. Two people have expressed interest through comtrader, one wishes to buy it for a business associate in AFRICA, and the other wants it for himself, and guess where he lives….. AFRICA. Sorry for all the capitals, but am I missing something here. I’ve replied to the ebay purchaser, who is going to pay through Paypal, which I know is covered by ebay so I feel safest. Just wondering if this obsession with me posting it to AFRICA is anything I should be sketchy about.

Or this person’s thoughtful reply:

Anything from Africa is a scam so stay well clear. Re-list the item if you have too.

Wow. Anything from Africa is a scam. I better take back this computer I just bought from GAME!

The unintentional effect here is that by blanketing the whole region as suspect, it reduces the number of viable alternatives for legitimate businesses and professionals who want to use services like PayPal for trade. I use PayPal for some of my payroll now (for people who don’t live near me). However, whenever I do, PayPal flags my account and shuts it down temporarily ‘because I accessed it from a suspicious location’. To unlock it I have to call them, from Uganda and do a bunch of other stuff that’s inconvenient. I suppose this is the price of admission for using the service in country it wasn’t intended to be used in. So no complaint here either.

But what it does mean, is that from every angle legitimate African businesses are smacked in the face by measures put in place to police the ones that are indeed abusing the system. But this affects even expatriates and NGOs that might want to use the service. If it’s accessed from a certain IP there’s a red flag, especially if that IP is not where you registered to use the service.

The Dark Continent…of People Just Like You

Once again, the message perpetuated here is to be cautious when dealing with Africans, Africa or anything you suspect of being related to the aformentioned. This is nothing new. Most people here have been dealing with such mentality their whole lives, why would it stop now that the medium has changed? To be fair, there’s truth to this stereotype. There is indeed a huge problem of scams here. There is some truth to most stereotypes, the word itself simply implies that those truths are applied where they don’t necessarily belong. If you’re a Nigerian Cyber scammer you’d have to be truly special to be offended by people complaining about Nigerian Cyber scams. If you aren’t and all you want to do is buy a laptop from someone in North Carolina off eBay, but you live in Botswana….well you’re about to be grossly offended by your transaction experience.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people here who are just like consumers everywhere else in the world. They want to buy things, they want the conveniences of online shopping, they want to do business…and they want their neighbors to stop scamming you so they can have those things.

I realize that the problem can’t be solved entirely by Paypal alone but I would appreciate at least an option to flag my account in advance for what might be mistaken for ’suspicious activity’. I’d be happy to leave this to PayPal’s discretion but my problem is they aren’t using any. African transaction? Banned! Banks will allow customers to indicate that they will be abroad for a certain period so that they don’t shutdown accounts by mistake. Why doesn’t PayPal? You’d be surprised at how damaging these blanket policies can be to an organization like mine that simply just wants to pay employees and be paid by clients.

I suppose the complaint is that PayPal doesn’t give me an option to avoid my account getting bricked. It costs me money every time they do it. They give me no alternative to prevent it from happening and when I talk to them, somehow it’s my fault for existing ‘in that country where The Last King of Scotland took place‘.
A Note of Thanks

Thank-you PayPal, for your charming international policies and your wonderful customer service. Thanks for flagging my account every time I try to pay someone, and thanks for forgetting every single time that I tell you I live outside of the U.S. because clearly people don’t travel anymore. Thanks for making it always necessary to prove my identity when you decide it’s convenient for me to do so, and thanks for giving me…a customer….no method for complaint when something like this happens.

Also, thanks for reversing payments to people on my behalf, even though I didn’t ask or even want you to. It really hurts my startup in ways you can’t imagine. Thanks for pissing off clients who didn’t think I was scamming them before, but who do now because of PayPals actions of reversing payments without warning. Isn’t that ironic?

By Jonathan Gosier

Jonathan Gosier is a software developer, writer and social entrepreneur. He currently lives in Kampala, Uganda where he incubates and invests in East African entrepreneurs as the CEO of Appfrica Labs. He's also a 2009 TEDGlobal Fellow. First published in  Appfrica

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