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Why saying 'idek' sets off Venmo's terrorism alerts

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When web slang and terrorism collide

"Idek" is a fairly simple acronym. Among English speakers, it's overwhelmingly used to mean "I don't even know," as a Google search will indicate. But it turns out that putting that same phrase in the text field of a Venmo transaction is a surefire way to get yourself in trouble.

A number of tipsters have reported transactions being flagged by Venmo after leaving "idek" as a description, a phenomenon verified by The Verge in independent testing. In each case, the transaction was put on hold for 96 hours until it could be reviewed by the company. The only explanation was this: "Federal regulations require that we screen payments for restricted goods and entities. The payment note mentions a restricted good or entity, so we have to review the payment." The next day, we got a more comprehensive email, asking for a reply explaining the purpose of the transaction. But why was "idek" raising so many flags?

"Federal regulations require that we screen payments"

Reached for comment, Venmo said it screens transactions in accordance with federal law. "We need to ensure that we are also moving money to and from people in a way that complies with regulations that are designed to protect our national safety, economy, and security," a representative said in a statement. In particular, the company monitors for activity that might violate U.S. trade sanctions or be linked to the Specially Designated Nationals list maintained by the US Treasury.

So why is IDEK setting off the scans? Venmo declined to speak to the specific case, but a quick turn through the SDN list turns up a likely answer. IDEK is also an acronym for Islami Dawat-e-Kafela, which is another name for Harakat Ul-Jihad-i-Islami, a radical Islamic organization in Bangladesh that was designated as a global terrorist group in 2008. To the bots that scan through Venmo's transaction records, that payment looks like it could be funding Bangladeshi terrorism, so it gets held up while the system takes a closer look.

Venmo IDEK

This isn't the first time a random phrase has triggered those systems. In 2014, Gawker reported flags on transactions labeled as "Ahmed," which the company put down to a glitch in the system. A later report confirmed that "iced coffee obama nsa inside job syria" also triggered the system. Banks use a similar system to analyze the memo field of checks, flagging terms like "blue sky" as suspicious. (A number of "Blue Sky" businesses are included on the State Department list, including a Dubai company called Blue Sky Aviation.)

With acronyms and abbreviations, that system is even easier to trigger. All told, the State Department lists tens of thousands of different individuals, companies and aliases, making it almost inevitable that some will overlap with the churning engine of web slang. So far, nothing comes up for similar slang like AFK or LOL, but with both sets of acronyms constantly in flux, "idek" won't be the last string of letters to end up on both lists.