Florida representative and MAGA firebrand Matt Gaetz found himself in the middle of a reputational, and possibly criminal, firestorm this week after the New York Times broke the news on Tuesday that the Justice Department is looking into whether he broke federal sex trafficking laws and had sexual encounters with a minor. The Times’ sources say that investigators are examining Gaetz’s relationship two years ago with someone who may have been 17 at the time. They are also determining whether he financially supported her, including paying for her to travel with him over state lines, in exchange for sex, which could amount to sex trafficking of a minor. Gaetz has categorically denied engaging in sexual relationships with minors or paying anyone for sex, and is instead claiming that the investigation is part of a ploy to extort $25 million from his family. Subsequent news reports have unearthed increasingly bizarre details about the scandal; Times reporters, for instance, reviewed records of suspicious transactions that Gaetz made through payment apps.
The Gaetz probe is reportedly part of a larger investigation into one of his political allies, former Seminole County, Florida, tax collector Joel Greenberg. Greenberg resigned last June after he was indicted on 14 federal charges, including sex trafficking of a 14-year-old. Greenberg was allegedly frequenting websites where users can meet people who are willing to have sex for gifts and other forms of ostensibly indirect financial support. According to the Times, Justice Department officials believe that Greenberg was having sex with these people and then introducing them to Gaetz for further sexual favors. Gaetz reportedly took ecstasy during some of these encounters, which occurred while he was in office in 2019 and 2020; the congressman notably criticized President Joe Biden’s son Hunter for drug use in 2019. Reporters also retrieved receipts of payments that Gaetz and Greenberg made via Cash App and Apple Cash to one of the women involved. This particular detail raised eyebrows on social media, mostly because it seems foolhardy for a high-profile politician to commit a crime using something as traceable as these two extremely popular payment apps.
For certain people engaging in criminal activities, payment apps can be useful for covering their tracks. Fraudsters trying to cheat people out of their COVID-19 relief funds have recently taken to using these apps to quickly move money between multiple accounts in order to confuse law enforcement. If you don’t do enough to obscure the sender and recipient of the illicit payments, though, the records that these apps keep can serve as indelible evidence. (There’s no way, for instance, to delete transaction histories on Cash App.) There have been a number of less visible cases in which payment app records came in handy for investigators. In June 2020, authorities arrested a Baltimore businessman after sex workers told them that he had made payments on such an app. In October, an employee in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office was charged with soliciting prostitution based partly on a $250 payment he allegedly made through Cash App. The employee fatally shot the sex worker and claimed he was acting in self-defense. And in January, a New York man was accused of contacting minors on Snapchat and pressuring them to send explicit selfies in exchange for $500 Cash App payments.
Sex workers who have reached the age of consent have been fighting to retain access to services like Venmo and PayPal, which they rely on to make a living. In 2018, Wired reported that incels and other men’s rights activists harnessed the societal stigma against sex workers in a campaign to get them kicked off of payment platforms. Laws like FOSTA-SESTA, which are intended to prevent people from being forced into prostitution, can also have the effect of motivating payment apps to ban willing sex workers who are offering consensual services. This has led some sex workers to seek out cryptocurrency payments instead, given the lack of gatekeepers and focus on anonymity.
Of course, some cases involving evidence found on payment apps don’t have anything to do with solicitation or sex trafficking. Investigators with the Montgomery County, Ohio, sheriff’s office found in 2019 that a corrections officer was selling inmates cigarettes for $100 a pack using Cash App on his phone. Inmates at a jail in Stafford County, Virginia, were also arrested in July 2020 for getting people on the outside to smuggle in drugs and paying them with Cash App. You’d think lawbreakers would’ve caught on by now: Don’t use apps—just cash.