Weird Seattle retailer Archie McPhee hit with even weirder PayPal problem, foiling Tardigrade sales – GeekWire

Archie McPhee tardigrade Christmas ornament
Archie McPhee tardigrade Christmas ornament, photo courtesy Archie McPhee

Seattle-based retailer Archie McPhee‘s slogan, “we make weird,” usually applies to the products they sell, such as mac & cheese-flavored candy canes or their internet-famous horse head mask.

But in recent weeks they ran into an especially weird tech issue: Payment processor PayPal blocked sales of their tardigrade-themed products, such as the glittery glass Christmas ornament above, shaped like one of the microscopic organisms also known as “water bears.”

The issue came to light just after Archie McPhee sent an email promoting the tardigrade ornament. Customers who attempted to purchase it using PayPal were faced with an error that “this transaction cannot be completed because it violates the PayPal User Agreement.”

“We have no idea why PayPal would say that a Tardigrade Christmas Ornament or Stress Tardigrade violates their customer agreement,” said Archie McPhee “Director of Awesome” David Wahl. “Our best theory is that they are jealous because tardigrades are so cute and pretty much indestructible. If not jealousy, why would PayPal hate tardigrades so much?”

A PayPal representative put the blame on US government’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions, which contain an entry for an industrial supply company called “Tardigrade Limited” located in the country of Cypress. According to PayPal, the word “tardigrade” triggered a manual review process because their system determined that the payments “may potentially violate US sanction laws.”

Archie McPhee "Director of Awesome" David Wahl
Archie McPhee “Director of Awesome” David Wahl

“We have been having mysterious issues with PayPal for months, but they won’t give you any feedback about the issue,” explained Wahl. “When we launched our tardigrade ornament at the same time as our new ketchup candy canes people were placing large Christmas orders and getting blocked much more frequently. This past weekend a customer told us that PayPal told him he was breaking their user agreement on our site, and using his order we were finally able to trace the problem to the tardigrades.”

In order to temporarily work around the issue, Archie McPhee changed every instance of “tardigrade” to “water bear” on the page for the Christmas ornament—including the URL and even non-displayed tags for search engines—but they lamented in their Twitter thread that “this is a terrible solution.”

The tardigrade fiasco even drew the attention of well-known legal expert Ken White, a.k.a. “Popehat,” who poked fun at PayPal’s not-so-high-tech keyword-matching security algorithm.

According to PayPal, transactions that triggered the security review have since been processed, but they did not specify whether or not they would be making any changes to their system to avoid future issues for tardigrade fans.

PayPal’s full statement is below.

As a US company, PayPal has to comply with US government OFAC sanctions. Payments that may potentially violate US sanction laws may be placed under review instead of automatically declined. Our goal is to deliver seamless payment experiences, and it is never our intent to hinder legitimate business operations. If, upon review, there is nothing in the payment that indicates it might violate the law, the payment will be processed. We realize any delay in making or receiving a payment can be frustrating, and appreciate our customers patience as we work to meet our compliance obligations.


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