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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FenSens turns your license plate holder into a smart parking sensor

If you were to walk into a car dealership right now, a pushy salesperson would likely pitch you an expensive rearview camera installation. These backup monitors have become all the rage, but they’re needlessly overpriced and difficult to install. The FenSens Smart License Plate Frame gets the job done for just $ 119.99 and takes only five minutes to set up.

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Dockless bike-sharing startup LimeBike is working on creating virtual parking spots

It’s the company’s answer to cities’ concerns over bike congestion.

For consumers, the benefits of dockless bike-sharing are obvious: You can take a bike and park it anywhere. For cities, it’s a little more complicated.

Left unmanaged, bikes can stack up and create more congested pedestrian walkways. It’s a big part of why many cities across the U.S. are taking a measured approach to allowing these new dockless companies to enter their markets.

That’s why one company, LimeBike, is beginning to explore developing virtual parking zones. The idea is that riders will be able to locate these designated drop-off spots in the app.

For the uninitiated, dockless bike-sharing works a lot like today’s bike-sharing systems, except you can, in theory, park the bikes anywhere, locking and unlocking them by scanning a QR code with an app. That differs from current bike-sharing programs in places like New York and San Francisco, where bikes are docked to fixed locations.

Today, many bike-sharing players rely on consumers to be responsible and lock the bikes on existing racks or other city-sanctioned locations.

Other competitors like Zagster, which recently launched a new dockless product called Pace, have opted to strategically position bike racks throughout the cities or campuses it operates in.

A primary value proposition for these companies and their investors is the low cost of infrastructure. The money that would have been spent on expensive racks or kiosks can instead be spent on things like manufacturing more technologically advanced bikes and expanding the types of vehicles they offer consumers. In other words, differentiating the service from rivals.

If it works, Limebike’s method would establish designated parking areas without adding the costs of physical racks to its balance sheet. The company says it is considering partnering with local retailers that would be willing to have a parking zone in front of or near their storefronts, which in turn could drive foot traffic to those locales.

This would require relying on consumers to be willing to walk a few or more blocks to and from those spots that may not always be right next to their destination. To encourage users to park in those designated spots, instead of directly in front of or next to their end location, Limebike says the company is thinking about creating a sort of incentive program for consumers.

An alternative solution that LimeBike — which recently hit one million rides in the U.S. — is considering is to give a free or discounted ride to people who would be willing to move a bike from one location to another one that perhaps has more demand.

These solutions will come in handy as the company attempts to enter markets that are dominated by entrenched incumbents like the country’s largest docked bike-sharing operator, Motivate. The company and its competitors have been seeing considerable progress even in some of the more difficult markets to crack

Most recently, New York City put out a public request for information to explore the feasibility of dockless bike-sharing systems. The systems will not be allowed to operate where Citi Bike, operated by Motivate, already exists, but if all goes well, the city expects to have a pilot program up and running by the summer or fall of 2018.

LimeBike, which only launched in the U.S. earlier this year, has already expanded rapidly across the country, and has plans to launch in Europe in 2018.

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University of Oklahoma installs sensor-based parking system

University of Oklahoma installs sensor-based parking system

Staff and students at the University of Oklahoma use IoT sensors to get their parking spot-on. 

A new parking guidance system has been deployed at the University of Oklahoma’s Jenkins Garage, used by staff, student and visitors to the campus.

The sensor technology was installed by Parking Guidance Systems (PGS) using Indect’s parking software. The camera-based parking guidance system offers real-time vehicle monitoring, license plate recognition and customizable audio alerts.

It differs from traditional camera-based parking guidance systems that provide only one light for a group of spaces. This can be confusing for drivers as they are directed to an area with a vacancy rather than to a specific space.

Indect said its single-space guidance system has one light for every space and offer a simpler and more intuitive parking guidance experience by guiding drivers directly to an open space.

Normally, it takes university staff and students up to 30 minutes to find parking. The installation of the Indect parking guidance system has reduced search times significantly and it now takes an average of just 10 minutes to find a space.

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Parking spaces

The software also helps with the university’s existing sustainable parking initiatives by allowing drivers to easily identify LEFE (Low-Emission, Fuel Efficient) spaces. Only vehicles that have a green score of 45 and above and are listed on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) may park in these spaces. It also enables the university to designate different parking areas for students, faculty, and guests according to changing needs.

Dale Fowler, Director of Indect USA, said this type of system has “never been done before”.

“Most organizations are willing to sacrifice single-space illumination for the features of a camera-based system but OU was different. The University had a clear vision of what parking guidance should be and insisted that the system provide ultimate benefits to parkers. That’s what makes this installation unique,” he said.

Following the successful installation of parking guidance at Jenkins Garage, The University of Oklahoma will be installing additional Indect systems in four more garages over the next 12 months.

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