Lawyer bots take the hassle out of fighting parking tickets and property taxes — and could cost local governments real revenue

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A new pain for cities.

After finding a parking ticket lashed to his windshield, Seattle resident Dan Lear normally would have bitten the bullet and paid up, even though he felt misled by street signage.

Instead, Lear decided to try his luck with DoNotPay, a free bot service that streamlines the process of contesting parking tickets. The service helped Lear win a dismissal in 2016, leaving him a little bit richer and Seattle a little bit poorer.

New technology-powered services like DoNotPay, WinIt and TurboAppeal are encouraging more people to challenge legal hassles like inaccurate tickets and property taxes online. While these tools can help citizens avoid unfair penalties, they also might tempt some users to game the system, and could strain the resources of local governments. These potential side effects might come at an inopportune time for municipalities, whose budgets may be squeezed under the new tax rules.

“I guess I’m torn between supporting my local government but also ensuring that people have the right to appeal things that they feel are not fair or not legal,” said the victorious Lear, who is an attorney by trade.

DoNotPay asks users a series of questions, such as whether a parking sign was difficult to read or a ticket had incorrect details, then produces a letter with a formal legal defense that drivers can mail in or submit online.

The free service has helped drivers across the U.S. and the U.K. squash more than 450,000 parking tickets representing $ 13 million in fines; users win dismissals more than 50 percent of the time, by founder Joshua Browder’s estimate. That compares to a dismissal rate of around 35 percent in Los Angeles and 21 percent in New York City.

Parking tickets are “used as a source of revenue, which is wrong, and something I’m trying to change for the longer term,” said Browder, who has been called the “Robin Hood of the internet” by the BBC. Local governments, he added, “generally don’t like me.”

Having recently clinched $ 1.1 million in seed funding, DoNotPay lists investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners and attorneys with the firm Wilson Sonsini. The company plans to expand into helping users fight property taxes and file for divorce, among other things.

WinIt, a mobile app that currently only services New York City but plans to expand this year, takes parking ticket challenges to the next level. It builds a legal defense with minimal or zero input, and then argues for a dismissal, often in court through a partner attorney, and proceeds “even if there’s a 5 percent chance that we can dismiss the ticket,” said WinIt CEO Ouriel Lemmel.

WinIt collects a fee — equal to half the fine — but only if it succeeds. Drivers can even sign up for WinIt’s “Ticket Guardian,” which will automatically challenge any new ticket associated with a customer’s license plate number as soon as it hits a government database.

Companies that depend on drivers are taking note: Ride-sharing app Via and delivery service Postmates both offer discounts on WinIt to their drivers.

WinIt expects to contest 3 percent to 4 percent of all New York City parking tickets this year, which could amount to well over 300,000 tickets, if 2018 ticket volume is similar to previous years. That could represent around $ 6 million in potential lost revenue for the city.

Appealing property taxes

At least one startup is also taking aim at a much larger source of municipal revenue: Property taxes.

Machine-learning-powered TurboAppeal makes it much easier for homeowners to challenge the property assessments used to levy property taxes. The company had raised more than $ 7 million from investors including online mortgage lender Guaranteed Rate, KGC Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners and real estate brokerage @properties before being acquired by Paradigm Tax Group for an undisclosed sum last year.

Homeowners can get detailed data and instructions that can cut the time needed to prepare a compelling appeal from hours to 30 minutes, according to Stace Hunt, marketing director at Paradigm. Priced at $ 49, the automated service typically costs much less than a property tax attorney.

Amanda McMillan, a Chicago realtor who used TurboAppeal to shave $ 700 off her 2015 tax bill, said a few clients who probably would not have otherwise fought their property taxes followed her advice and gave TurboAppeal a whirl. To their delight, they won reductions, she said.

TurboAppeal had reportedly generated more than 100,000 property tax appeals as of May 2017; it covers 64 counties and 23 million single-family homes and has claimed a success rate of more than 75 percent in the past.

Some data suggests that self-service companies like TurboAppeal and DoNotPay have lots of room to grow.

The opportunity

Public New York City data, along with statistics provided to Recode by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, showed that fewer than 10 percent of parking tickets were challenged in those two cities over the last few years, while less than 5 percent of properties in all but one of New Jersey’s 21 counties saw their tax bills appealed in 2016.

But more fine dismissals and property tax reductions would mean less money for local schools and police departments, noted Megan Randall, a research associate at the Urban Institute. Property taxes reportedly make up roughly 30 percent of local government revenue nationwide.

Illustrating how services that target this revenue could pose a fiscal nuisance, New Jersey’s Monroe County was forced to issue a bond in 2011 to cover $ 5 million in refunds due to a spike in property tax appeals. The increase was driven by the housing meltdown, though the town’s finance director at the time also cited attorneys “trying to convince residents to file mass appeals,” the Star-Ledger reported.

Parking tickets, meanwhile, account for less than 1 percent of local government revenue nationwide, but some municipalities are much more reliant on fines than others.

For example, in 2013, 21 of the 90 municipalities in Missouri’s St. Louis County collected more than 20 percent of revenue from court fines and fees, of which parking and speeding tickets are a large contributor.

Drops in traffic tickets can cut into state budgets, too. A decrease in ticket volume forced the Nevada Supreme Court to seek a bailout in 2015. DoNotPay and WinIt can help users fight moving violations such as speeding tickets, so they could also nibble away at revenue from a range of traffic fines, not just parking tickets.

A jump in appeals would also increase the workload of municipal employees who are tasked with reviewing ticket and tax challenges.

“At this point, we don’t have an automated process, so it may cost our constituents money,” said Mark Granado, manager of parking operations and support for the LA Department of Transportation.

Moreover, many people may use these services to try to game the system, not to right a wrong.

WinIt and DoNotPay can help users get off on technicalities, such as if a ticket incorrectly describes a car’s color or make. Such errors can cost big bucks: New York City recently announced that it would refund a reported $ 26 million worth of parking tickets due to the omission of a zero from the ordinance code on roughly 500,000 tickets.

The government finance, parking enforcement and county appraiser employees that Recode spoke to said they didn’t believe that services such as WinIt, DoNotPay or TurboAppeal have boosted ticket and tax challenges so far, but generally acknowledged the potential for this to occur.

Some, including Granado, the Los Angeles parking enforcement official, said they would welcome services that professionalize more appeals, while a few employees encouraged consumers to consider using government systems, questioning whether third-party services add value.

Asked about concerns with their services, WinIt, DoNotPay and TurboAppeal emphasized that they are simply empowering more consumers to exercise their legal rights.

Municipalities could try to deal with more appeal volume by increasing property tax rates and fines or by investing in technology. But this could be harder than ever, given that the recent tax reform may impose downward pressure on property taxes, among other budget constraints.

“In an ideal world, governments would invest in the necessary resources to adapt,” Randall said in an email. “However, in reality, we often become reliant on private-sector actors who derive material benefit from a complex and opaque tax system.”

Teke Wiggin is a Brooklyn-based reporter who covers technology, labor and housing. Reach him @tkwiggin.

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California bill would force Twitter and Facebook to identify bots

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Facebook and Twitter are plenty aware that Russian-backed actors have been using troll accounts to manipulate online discourse. Despite introducing transparency tools and purging lists of bots, California lawmakers don't think the companies are doing…
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We’ve Seen What Bots Do to Democracy. Are We Adapting Fast Enough?

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During the 2016 U.S. election, an estimated one in every five tweets about the election were from bots. They were also promoting far-right candidates in France and Germany in 2017, and now, are spreading false information in Ireland ahead of a contentious referendum on abortion. This keeps happening. Why?

Or rather: Why isn’t anything being done to prevent bots from interfering with voting?

Governments and media platforms are (ostensibly) trying. Federal and state authorities have begun looking into the proliferation of fake Twitter users, and a Russian bot farm was even indicted by the U.S. special investigation into the election. Twitter has been cracking down on bots by changing its software, and in January removed the over 50,000 Russian-linked accounts that posted automated messages during the election (though we can’t help but feel that’s too little, too late). Facebook did the same with several hundred fake accounts in September 2017.

In Ireland, officials are trying to introduce legislation that would require social media companies verify that anyone taking out a political ad is a real person, and share that information both with regulators and alongside the ad itself. Unfortunately, if it passes, that legislation likely won’t come into affect until after the referendum is over. Yet lawmakers also feel the law will be relevant to prevent foreign influence in future elections.

While government legislation moves frustratingly slow in comparison to the speed of news, it’s that kind of future-forward thinking that we’re going to need if we want to get our bot problem under control. Government action could be the only way to get social media platforms to implement broader countermeasures; as seen in the case of upcoming EU privacy laws, it’s often too difficult for platforms to cherry pick in which countries their settings apply, so legislation in one country can change a platform for everyone.

Facebook already has plans to verify ad buyers in a very old-fashioned way for the upcoming U.S. midterm elections, but those rules seem to only be applied in the U.S.

All of which is to say: Platforms are, understandably, reluctant to come up with rules that would make it harder for people to spend money on their sites, or that limit the growth of new users. Yet those platforms also rely on all of us that trust them to make social media a safe and trustworthy place to waste spend time. We can’t necessarily make online political discourse civil; but with enough pressure from users, we might be able to at least make it human.

The post We’ve Seen What Bots Do to Democracy. Are We Adapting Fast Enough? appeared first on Futurism.

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20 Useful Telegram Bots to Wean You Off WhatsApp

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OK, so WhatsApp IS the most widely-used instant messaging app, but it’s certainly not the best. The Facebook-owned software has many worthy competitors, one of which is Telegram.

We have written about why you should use Telegram instead of WhatsApp elsewhere on the site, but one feature we didn’t touch on is the presence of bots.

We’re not talking about Russian bots trying to influence elections. Telegram bots are useful tools that can do everything from helping you streamline your productivity to helping you discover new music.

There are literally thousands of bots available on Telegram. So, how do you know which ones are worth your time? Just read on to find out.

1. Weatherman

The Weatherman bot keeps you abreast of the latest forecasts for your location. You can view one-day, two-day, and weekly forecasts. You can even customize your notifications so you only receive an alert when the forecast meets specific criteria.

2. Feed Reader

Contrary to popular belief, RSS isn’t dead. It remains one of the best ways to stay abreast of all the sites you care about. Feed Reader works with regular RSS feeds, but can also read public Facebook pages, and YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.

3. What Music Bot

You can think of What Music Bot as Shazam for Telegram. It can recognize and identify songs.

To use the bot, open a chat window and hold down the Record button. Release the button to send the recording, and, after a few seconds, the bot will tell you the name of the artist and track.

4. DeLorean

Sadly, despite the name, this bot won’t help you time travel. It will, however, make sure you never forget anything important.

If you write a message to the bot, it will offer to create a notification for you at a defined time in the future. For example, you could write “Email Dave about his favorite cheese” and get DeLorean to remind you next Thursday.

5. Crypto Whale

Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum; the list goes on. Today, there are thousands of altcoins out there. If you have a diversified portfolio, it’s difficult to track the price movements you care about. Crypto Whale might be able to help. It provides on-demand charts, prices, and market capitalization for most coins. It’ll even let you know about upcoming ICOs.

6. Just Dharma Quotes

If you’re ever having a bad day, you can always turn to Buddhist quotes for a hit of uplifting inspiration.

Just Dharma Quotes will provide you with a phrase whenever you ask for one.

7. GetMedia

GetMedia lets you download photos, video, and audio from most of the leading social networks and video sites.

YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, SoundCloud, and Twitter are all supported. Just make sure you don’t breach any copyright laws when grabbing content.

8. Pomodoro Timer

The Pomodoro technique is a time-management methodology. It introduces brief “rests” into your working day. Traditionally, you should split your time into 25 minutes of work and five minutes of respite, but use whichever split work for you.

9. To PDF

To PDF is a productivity bot. It can convert DOC, DOCX, ODT, TXT, and JPG files into the PDF format.

Just send your files to the bot in the app, and you’ll receive a PDF in return moments later.

10. Skeddy

Skeddy is similar to the previously mentioned DeLorean. Its core purpose is sending you reminders.

The bot can understand natural language, thus allowing you to set reminders with your voice. It can also create recurring reminders and postpone existing reminders.

11. UberTaxi

Uber’s status as the premier ride-sharing app in the United States might be under threat from Lyft, but the company is still extremely popular; it provides a staggering 5.5 million rides per day around the world. This bot lets you order an Uber to your location without using the Uber app.

12. Wolfram Bot

Wolfram Bot brings the power of the Wolfram Alpha website to Telegram.

For those who don’t know, Wolfram Alpha is one of the web’s most well-known computational knowledge engines. It answers factual queries from its bank of “curated data.” It will not link you to individual websites.

13. Spotybot

Spotybot is a multi-functional Spotify bot. It lets you listen to music from within the Telegram app, add songs to your Spotify library, and share tracks and playlists from friends.

14. Giphy GIF Search

A good GIF is a surefire way to brighten up a chat, or perhaps make people groan, depending on your standpoint.

Giphy GIF Search works across all your existing Telegram chats. Type @gif [search term] to find the perfect animation.

15. PronunciationBot

It takes years of frequent practice until you can say you’re truly fluent in a new language, although with some well-deployed online laguage-learning tools you can be conversational quickly. With PronunciationBot, you’ll be able to convey your needs wherever you find yourself. The bot supports 84 languages.

16. Trending Bot

We live in a world of fake news. So perhaps it’s better to get your current affairs from the world’s major search engines and social networks instead.

The Trending Bot monitors Google Trends, Twitter’s Trending Now, and YouTube’s trending videos so you’ll always know what’s hot.

17. Text to Speech Bot

If you struggle to type using an on-screen keyboard—or if you’re just downright lazy—Text to Speech can help. As the name suggests, just start speaking and the bot will transcribe your voice into text. It can use both the wit.ai and Google Speech backends.

18. Markdown Bot

OK, so these days we have emojis to brighten up our messages, but texts can still be a little underwhelming.

This bot lets you add bold, italic, and underlined text to your messages. Just type @bold, @italic, or @underline respectively.

19. PokerBot

Time for a bit of fun. PokerBot lets you play Texas Hold ‘Em against both your friends and random Telegram users.

But be assured that PokerBot is not a gambling app, and no money is involved.

20. Storebot

Is there a bot you’d love to use but that we haven’t covered? If so, then Storebot is the answer. It’s the official Telegram Store Bot.

You can browse available bots, send bot recommendations to friends, and install new bots in your Telegram app.

Telegram Bots as Far as the Eye Can See

These 20 bots add a fantastic selection of useful and usable tools to Telegram. And they might be all that you need to finally dump WhatsApp and go all-in on Telegram.

However, remember that Telegram is far from the only service that offers useful bots. If this article has inspired you to deploy some bots in other apps you use, check out our list of Android chatbots, productivity bots to automate tasks, and useful Facebook Messenger bots.

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To Kick Bots off Social Media, Congress Might Have to Get Involved

A Social (Media) Issue

Most website traffic comes not from humans, but from bots — software programs designed to do automated tasks on the internet like refresh Facebook feeds or sort Google search results. But oftentimes bots are used for not-so-nice purposes, like harvesting email addresses or impersonating internet users.

When it comes to bots pretending to be real people, and say, participating in politics, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have a serious problem — it turns out that 20 percent of tweets about the heated 2016 U.S. Presidential election came from bots.

The problem of so many bots flooding these sites is that they are powerful enough to sway discourse through the sheer number of (non-human) opinions they churn out.  Twitter has been trying to figure out a better way to handle the multitude of bots that tweet on a regular basis. The company has also started cracking down on users with multiple accounts, according to a recent announcement.

These efforts might not be enough, according to some lawmakers. Speaking at NBC’s “Meet the Press” earlier this week, senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) suggested that Congress slap social media giants like Facebook and Twitter with fines if the companies fail to root out their bot problems.

“I think that would be a great idea,” said Klobuchar, and it’s one that we don’t hear lawmakers consider often enough. “But then you need Congress to act. There are too many people that are afraid of doing something about this because we know these sites are popular.”

Automated bots are designed to interact with human users as if they themselves were actually human,  so tracing which tweets are penned by bots and which profiles represent people who aren’t real is challenging. Levying fines, would perhaps be a catalyst to start the crack-down, but it would still be up to Facebook and Twitter to root out fake accounts and users.

One solution would be to implement protocols that require approval for new applications, as well as those that force bots to identify themselves and adhere to clear-cut bot policies. Considering how these social media companies are among the biggest names in tech, handling the bot problem shouldn’t be that difficult. Right?

“These are the most sophisticated companies in America,” Klobuchar pointed out. “They have brilliant people working there. They’ve got to put more resources — maybe it means making less profits off of ads and other things — but they’ve got to put the resources into Facebook and Twitter to stop these bots from dominating the accounts.”

The post To Kick Bots off Social Media, Congress Might Have to Get Involved appeared first on Futurism.

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Facebook should have to pay a fine if it can’t get rid of bots, Democratic senator says

Sen. Amy Klobuchar sounded off on social media and bots on “Meet the Press.”

Bots on Facebook are like “toxic waste” being dumped into the environment, Sen. Amy Klobuchar says, and the platforms should be fined if they can’t clean it up.

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, the senior U.S. senator from Minnesota said Congress should act if Facebook and Twitter can’t clean up the bot pollution. She alleged that there are “tens of millions” of bots flooding the social web with vitriol.

“These are the most sophisticated companies in America,” Klobuchar said. “They have brilliant people working there. They’ve got to put more resources — maybe it means making less profits off of ads and other things — but they’ve got to put the resources into Facebook and Twitter to stop these bots from dominating the accounts.”

“Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd asked if the social media giants should be fined if they can’t purge themselves of bots that the government has discovered.

“I think that would be a great idea,” Klobuchar said. “But then you need a Congress to act. There are too many people that are afraid of doing something about this because we know these sites are popular.”

Klobuchar is one of the co-authors of a bipartisan bill, the Honest Ads Act, that would regulate political ads on Facebook, Google and Twitter, but that bill does not address bots.

Watch the full video of Klobuchar’s appearance on “Meet the Press” below:

And — obligatory plug — son’t miss Kara Swisher’s recent interview with Todd on her podcast, Recode Decode.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode’s parent company, Vox Media.


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Twitter begins long-awaited crackdown on bots

Twitter has finally begun its long-awaited crackdown on bots. The company has made changes to its API that make it significantly harder for services to batch tweet to multiple accounts, retweet, follow users, and more. This puts a stop to the software that powers Twitter bots. Twitter started tackling its massive abuse problem last year; […]

(via Cult of Mac – Tech and culture through an Apple lens)

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BotChain platform for AI bots announces key partners

Talla has announced new partnerships for its blockchain platform for bot registry, identity validation, and event ledgering for AI products.

As the global ecosystem of artificially intelligent bots and software grows, and businesses become more dependant on them, the need for a standardised, trustworthy, and immutable ecosystem to support it also grows.

Talla is looking to address this with its blockchain platform, BotChain. The AI-powered knowledge and information management company has raised $ 12 million in equity funding so far – helping it to build a system that offers universal registration, identity validation, bot audit, and compliance capabilities, along with an event ledger for AI products.

The new partnership programme has just been unveiled, introducing an initial roster of platforms and SaaS applications. Together, they make up 50,000 developers and over 150,000 enterprise and consumer-facing bots, reaching 400 million users with billions of messages every month.

BotChain’s new links

The line-up includes Gupshup, a platform for developers, and B2B enterprise bots Polly, CareerLark, Botkit, Disco (formerly Growbot), Zoom.ai, and Botkeeper. The Gupshup platform is deployed at the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and HDFC Bank.

“The rapidly growing and widespread demand for bots that we’ve seen at Gupshup clearly proves the need for a new level of standardisation within the industry, and BotChain offers a powerful solution,” said Gupshup CEO, Beerud Sheth. “Everyone who interacts with a bot in any capacity benefits from this new layer of enablement and increased accountability, and we are excited to be a part of that.”

The BotChain ecosystem is impressively broad, expanding beyond bot, AI, and robotic automation to include software companies, messaging platforms, and enterprise consultants.

Revenue from AI products is predicted to exceed $ 47 billion by 2020, making a universal system for managing this ecosystem an attractive proposition. Blockchain’s immutability makes it ideally suited to the task.

“BotChain will be managed and moulded by an invested and proven group of like-minded partners,” said Anthony Habayeb, head of BotChain partnerships. “Aligned thinking is key for fuelling adoption and acceleration.”

Internet of Business says

BotChain will be eager to establish itself as a serious player in the blockchain space, given the plethora of ‘me too’ companies and cryptocurrencies that are rushing to exploit this fashionable technology. By positioning some big names alongside their forward-looking products, BotChain is well placed to grow with the systems it is supporting.

Plus…

In other news, decentralised healthcare blockchain platform HealthCombix has partnered with NuCypher to explore distributed security technology to tackle privacy, consent and identity challenges.

HealthCombix is looking to redesign how healthcare is delivered and paid for by using blockchain. NuCypher’s proxy re-encryption (a type of public-key encryption that allows a third-party proxy to transform cyphertexts from one public key to another) will play a key role in this.

“Our goal is to build out the next generation of healthcare systems. We are redefining and redesigning in an open protocol a decentralised network model for healthcare, replacing existing systems with best-of-breed distributed technology in a layered and integrated architecture,” said HealthCombix founder and CEO, Cyrus Maaghul.

“Decentralised key management, privacy, and consent are cornerstone capabilities in this new healthcare economy, and we believe NuCypher is on the leading edge in this space.”

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