Jorge Espinoza, the founder of PreRace, a Web site where bicyclists and runners can register for races, was on a roll in March. In three days his site took in over $1 million in registrations for a major bike race, much more than usual.
Then PayPal, the online payment service that his site was using to process credit card transactions, froze the company’s account. To PayPal, the flurry of activity raised suspicions about fraud, so it told Mr. Espinoza that it was holding the money.
“They created such a massive headache,” Mr. Espinoza said. If he had not been able to take out a $500,000 loan to pay the race’s organizers, he said, PayPal could easily have put PreRace out of business.
While PayPal says that only a small percentage of its customers run into such issues, there have been enough horror stories like this in recent years to make some companies think twice about using PayPal, the most popular electronic payments service in the world.
The victims range from individual sellers to start-up companies, and from creative artists to impromptu philanthropists. They all had to scramble when PayPal decided to hold onto their money longer than expected.
PayPal, which is owned by eBay , remains the dominant global player in e-commerce, handling more than half of all Web transactions by some estimates, and it continues to grow. But some businesses who are frustrated by the company’s aggressive antifraud measures are looking at other ways to accept payments.
When it was founded in 1998, PayPal was among the first companies that allowed people to easily transmit funds to one another over the Internet. It now has 113 million users worldwide, and it says its antifraud measures are in place to protect those users from what is no doubt an army of would-be swindlers.
Katherine Hutchison, senior director of risk management at PayPal, said it has employed hundreds of mathematics scholars with Ph.D.’s who work on software to detect and prevent fraud. One potential sign of fraud, she said, is an unusually large transaction.
For example, if a merchant regularly sells items that cost $30 to $50, and then suddenly sells a $3,000 item, PayPal cannot be completely sure that the seller actually has such a valuable item in her inventory, so it proceeds cautiously to protect the buyer. “When you walk into a dollar store or a drugstore, you’re not going to buy fine jewelry there,” she said.
Another warning sign is a spike in activity, like a sudden burst of transactions in a formerly quiet account. PayPal says it has seen cases where this is a sign that a person is about to go bankrupt and is selling off all of his possessions — possibly before fleeing the country.
April Winchell, an actress and the publisher of the humor blog Regretsy, had nothing of the sort in mind last December when she decided to use her blog and PayPal to drum up donations to buy Christmas gifts for poor children. The money came in so fast — $20,000 in total — that PayPal froze her account. She ended up dipping into her own savings to buy the gifts, and only after Ms. Winchell documented the incident on her blog did PayPal apologize. It ended up reimbursing her for the donations.
Ms. Winchell is still upset with PayPal. She said she was still getting e-mails from people who ran across her blog posts and told her of similar problems with the service, including one in which PayPal suspended the account of a charity collecting donations for orphans in Vietnam. Other tales of woe are scattered across message boards on PayPal’s own site and elsewhere.
“It happens every day,” Ms. Winchell said. “It’s the most bizarre and draconian policy, and it’s really embarrassing, but they’re huge and they just don’t care.”
PayPal’s Ms. Hutchison said situations where people had to wait to access their funds were rare, affecting about 2 percent of accounts. Very few of those were extreme cases, as when an account is frozen, she said.
Ms. Hutchison added that the company was working to be more open with merchants and customers about its policies. After a reporter began asking about customer problems, she published a blog post clarifying and discussing changes to PayPal’s policies on holding funds.
Some companies are competing with PayPal by looking specifically at the headaches it sometimes causes for businesses and aiming to offer a more customer-friendly service. Bill Clerico, chief executive of WePay, an electronic payments service based in Palo Alto, Calif., said he had decided to form his company because of his own experience in 2007, during his college years, when PayPal held thousands of dollars he had collected for his work as a tutor.
“As a college kid trying to pay rent and have spending money, it was incredibly frustrating to have that kind of money tied up,” Mr. Clerico said.
WePay uses many of the same fraud-detection methods as PayPal, he said, but the main difference is that its system takes into account a business’s social networking profiles when investigating suspicious transactions. A small company’s Facebook pages, Yelp reviews and Twitter account are evaluated to gauge its legitimacy, and a business’s account is frozen only when it has been conclusively determined that fraud has taken place, he said.
Mr. Clerico noted that PayPal had started as a service for people to sell items over eBay, not as something to build a business on. He developed WePay with small businesses in mind. Max Levchin, the co-founder of PayPal, is an investor in WePay. Other PayPal competitors include Braintree and payment services from Amazon and Google .
But PayPal is not going anywhere. Samee Zafar, a director at Edgar, Dunn and Company — a consulting firm that has done some work for PayPal in the past — said that even if competitors found a way to make payments simpler, none of them have the global reach of PayPal.
“Feature by feature, I’m sure these companies are better in some ways with their payment technologies than PayPal, but that doesn’t mean you can beat the guy who has the real customer network,” Mr. Zafar said. He added that unlike its smaller rivals, PayPal has relationships with banks all around the world, and the brand has gained trust and recognition. (WePay requires businesses it works with to be in the United States.)
Mr. Zafar said PayPal’s challenge would be in mobile payments, a market that is full of hot start-ups like Square and Scvngr. PayPal does not have the infrastructure or a presence in physical retail stores yet, apart from a pilot project with Home Depot, and it will be difficult for a company that has always done online payments to make this transition, he said.
In PreRace’s case, Mr. Espinoza said that before the freeze he called a customer service hot line to warn PayPal that PreRace was about to get a big influx of money. He said he spoke to a low-level representative who made a note of the call — but this did not matter to the risk analysis team that froze the account.
PayPal said it would allow the company to withdraw part of its money once a month, and would release the balance only after the bike race concluded in mid-June. PreRace eventually got all of its money. But Mr. Espinoza is in the process of switching to a different payment service.