After visiting family members in Baltimore County, Michele Owens had some time to kill before her flight back home. She decided to drive downtown and reminisce about the city she lived in decades ago.

Driving a rental car, Owens rolled to a stop at the intersection of President and Lombard streets, where the Jones Falls Expressway filters into the city grid. There, Owens said she was approached by two squeegee workers asking for money. Owens said she told one of the young men, who might have been in his late teens, that she didn’t have any cash on her.

That was just fine, the two squeegee workers insisted: She could simply use Cash App, or Zelle, two direct payment apps that have become increasingly popular in recent years. Feeling trapped, Owens said she handed over her phone and waited for what seemed like five minutes, then handed the worker a $20 bill as well, before getting her phone back. She then drove to a place where she felt safe, checked her phone, and saw that the squeegee worker had sent himself $2,000 using her Zelle account, Owens said.

“My sister and brother-in-law told me that there had been an incident with the squeegee boys, where someone had gotten shot, so that was in the back of my mind, that I better comply,” Owens said. “That definitely added to my terror. I’m so sorry that I didn’t put it together, that I needed to stay away from Baltimore.”

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Owens is one of several motorists who have complained of such a scam in recent months, even before the shooting death of bat-wielding motorist Timothy Reynolds by a squeegee worker earlier this month brought the practice back into the headlines. The complaints, which have surfaced through rumor mills and social media postings, are largely concentrated at the Lombard and President intersection.

In an attempt to get her money back, Owens filed a police report. She said a Baltimore Police Department detective working her case told her the same young man who wired himself $2,000 of her money had used the same phone number to commit two other thefts with Apple Pay that same day.

The scale of the problem is yet unclear, and not all squeegee workers commit thefts. Many are simply trying to make money for their families.

But even before the recent shooting, local news outlets have reported similar incidents of people falling victim to the payment app scams. A spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department said the agency is “aware of incidents of theft involving squeegee workers using Cash App and other apps to take more money than agreed upon from individuals.”

“The Department, along with the Mayor’s Office and the City Solicitor’s office have connected with the vendor and we are working directly with them to investigate these cases,” the spokesperson said. “The Department is working to identify and apprehend these suspects and determining proper charges in these cases.”

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The spokesperson said the Police Department is still compiling statistics on how many reports there have been of the payment app scam ahead of a city hearing to take place later this week that will deal with squeegee work in detail. A different city official said their goal is to develop guidance for motorists and come up with a deterrence plan that will curb thefts arising out of squeegeeing, short of outright criminalizing it. Baltimore has a city code against squeegeeing, but the mayor and the police commissioner have cited constitutional concerns in explaining their hesitancy to enforce it.

Payment app scams make for uncharted legal territory

Because the payment apps are still relatively new, it’s unclear how various laws would apply to what Owens described as a theft, or even potentially an assault. T. Wray McCurdy, a former state prosecutor and current Baltimore criminal defense attorney, said a different would-be client approached him recently and described a similar scam.

The victim of that scam said the phone was taken forcibly from them, but even in that case, McCurdy said it could be a matter of commercial law rather than criminal law. After researching the issue, he said he didn’t think there was anything he could offer the potential client.

“In my estimation, because Cash App is classified as a bank, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “It’s akin to the person who keeps signed checks in their checkbooks back in the day, and somebody takes the check and writes it to themselves … The bank won’t reimburse you because you did not use a commercially reasonable method of securing the transaction.”

Steven D. Silverman, a Baltimore-based criminal and civil attorney, said that the scams described by victims are obvious criminal acts.

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“Think about the phone and the Cash App as a digital wallet,” Silverman said.

If somebody asks for a certain payment out of your wallet, then takes more, that would be simple theft, he said — equivalent to “taking or carrying away the property of another person without authorization.”

“That’s what they’ve done, they’ve stolen,” Silverman said.

McCurdy said he agreed with the wallet analogy, but such a case would be hard to prove in a criminal court. He compared the legal landscape to the one surrounding forgeries.

“If somebody passed a bad check, who ultimately gets stuck with the money? Invariably, it ends up being the owner of the checks that didn’t take good care of them,” he said. “That’s very settled law.”

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But McCurdy said he didn’t think that meant payment apps should be able to skirt liability all together.

“Most people who download this app have no idea what they just agreed to,” he said.

Federal agency may help protect fraud victims

Apart from the squeegee debate in Baltimore, complaints of frauds and scams taking place on payment apps are drawing the interest of certain U.S. senators and consumer protection advocates. Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer program at Maryland PIRG, said the heart of the issue is that the payment apps have marketed themselves as social media networks and promoted them for use anywhere.

“You should never, never use a Cash App or Zelle or Venmo … except for sharing costs of something like a birthday party with your friends or family,” Mierzwinksi said.

The regulatory question, according to Mierzwinksi, concerns a “loophole” that states that a transaction initiated by the consumer cannot be viewed as an unauthorized charge. While payment apps are required by law to investigate claims of fraud, they can point to that sub paragraph, which allows them to skirt liability, he said.

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“That’s the problem,” Mierzwinski said. “Even if the consumer is tricked into sending the money by a fraudster, or obviously if the fraudster is using the consumer’s phone to send the money, that is being interpreted by the companies as, ‘We don’t have to give you your money back, sorry. The regulation says it came from your phone, so you must have authorized it.’”

Under pressure from Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may be spurred into action to close that so-called loophole, Mierzwinski added. He described it as an easy fix.

“The rest of the law explains that, if the bad guy tricks you into giving up your credentials first, then accesses your account, that’s clearly illegal and you have to get your money back, but there’s this one circumstance where it’s badly written,” he said.

Other ways to pay squeegee workers digitally

Long before the complaints of squeegee workers misusing payment apps were on the rise, John Strobel, a semi-retired engineer, saw the technology as an opportunity.

About two years ago, Strobel founded a website called, which funnels anonymous digital donations to squeegee workers as a third party, creating a firewall of financial and personal information.

Strobel, who uses the PayPal app to run his website, said that the squeegee workers are largely “pretty responsible” kids, with some bad actors, like any group. His ultimate goal in starting the service was to connect employers with the youth who want jobs.

“But you’ve got to solve problem one first, and that’s to dial down the temperature a little bit,” he said. “How do you do that? You take the cash out if you can. And how do you do that safely for both parties?”

When Strobel brought his idea to city officials, he said they didn’t get in his way. But they told him they didn’t want to institutionalize squeegeeing, which they considered undesirable, so they didn’t offer their support for the program. Strobel said that missed the point.

“A clean needles program doesn’t mean we’re okay with heroin,” Strobel said, using an analogy. “It just means we’re dealing with the problem.”

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Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union.

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