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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WhatsApp is now Facebook’s second-biggest property, followed by Messenger and Instagram

How Facebook’s various properties stack up.

Facebook and WhatsApp boasted record usership — 2.13 billion and 1.5 billion monthly active users, respectively — according to Facebook’s fourth-quarter earnings yesterday. That’s despite a small decline in the number of users in the U.S. and Canada.

WhatsApp is now bigger than Messenger, its rival/sibling messaging app. It’s also far bigger than Instagram. Facebook’s namesake app, of course, remains, on top.

In September, Messenger passed 1.3 billion monthly active users. That same month, Instagram reached 800 million monthly active users and 500 million who use it every day. Facebook didn’t release new numbers for Messenger or Instagram. For context, Snapchat, which Instagram Stories pillaged, had 178 million as of its third-quarter earnings report.

Here’s how Facebook apps compare to each other as far as monthly active users.

Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram monthly active users

And here’s how they got there:


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Woe betide those who violate Grumpy Cat’s intellectual property

If you were looking at humorous pictures of cats on the internet in 2012, you might remember a particularly grumpy one.

The cat was named Tardar Sauce (a gross slur, when you think about it), and her owners became very, very rich in the years that followed. There was a Grumpy Cat movie, Grumpy Cat toys, and all manner of lesser-known Grumpy Cat products, basically a miniature industry of crap made in the image of this visibly unhappy pet.

Now, six years later, that industry is mature, and it’s starting to spawn its own lawsuit. This week, Grumpy Cat Limited (the corporate entity that handles all Grumpy Cat-related licensing) won a long-standing lawsuit against Grenade Beverage for violating Grumpy-related intellectual property in the…

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Fast Radio Bursts Have a Unique Property That Can Help Us Determine Their Source

Twisted Signals

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) can be found alongside dark matter, black holes, and Tabby’s Star on the list of the most baffling and intriguing space phenomena. Now, a discovery about the most well-studied FRB could reveal new insights into these strange radio signals from space.

FRBs are extremely powerful and can generate as much energy as 500 million Suns. However, they are also very short in duration, lasting just milliseconds. We know of about 30 FRBs, but the only one observed repeating its activity is FRB 121102. This repetition has allowed researchers to determine that the signals are originating from a dwarf galaxy more than 3 billion light-years from Earth.

Using data collected by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, an international team of researchers has discovered that the signals emanating from FRB 121102 are immensely twisted. That means they must be passing through a powerful magnetic field, further narrowing down the potential source.

According to the team’s study, which has been published in Nature, the most likely source of FRB 121102 is a neutron star, and the high level of rotation observed in its signals narrows down the environment of that star to a few possibilities.

Researchers have only observed a comparable level of rotation in one other place: near massive black holes. Thus, close proximity to such a black hole is the leading theory as to FRB 121102’s environment). However, the researchers have also provided some alternative possible locales, such as within a highly magnetized wind nebula or surrounded by a supernova remnant.

Those are just a few potential explanations, and the team is confident that other researchers will soon build on this new data and share their own hypotheses. “In the coming weeks, we expect that very creative theorists are going to come up with explanations that we haven’t thought of yet,” Jason Hessels of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) told National Geographic.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Because it repeats, FRB 121102 is a unique instance of an already unusual phenomenon. Finding out that its signal has a rotation that is, in fact, amongst the strongest ever observed, just adds to its cosmic strangeness.

If further study proves that the source of FRB 121102 is located near a black hole, it could help us learn more about the Galactic Centre, the dynamic region near the massive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. Conversely, learning that it’s a neutron star within a wind nebula or a supernova remnant could reveal new insights about those interstellar phenomena.

Though far less likely, the uniqueness of FRBs within the natural world has led some (including a pair of Harvard astrophysicists) to consider an artificial origin. In other words, aliens. This new information on the twist of FRB 121102’s signal makes it even more unusual within the framework of our current understanding of the universe, so some of the explanations Hessels believes are forthcoming could lean into this extraterrestrial origin theory.

2007 marked the first discovery of an FRB, but the first instance of FRB 121102 repeating wasn’t detected until 2015. In just a few short years, researchers have been able to narrow down its source to not only a specific galaxy within the whole universe — but now, to a specific environment within that galaxy. With each new advance in technology, we get one step closer to solving the mystery of this strange space phenomenon, and eventually, it may cease to be a mystery at all.

The post Fast Radio Bursts Have a Unique Property That Can Help Us Determine Their Source appeared first on Futurism.

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LG partners with former Nokia property HERE for autonomous vehicle information systems

LG Electronics announced a partnership today with HERE Technologies to create a new platform for self-driving cars’ navigation systems and onboard sensors. The two companies plan to offer a “next-generation telematics solution for autonomous vehicles,” combining the considerable digital mapping and navigation expertise of HERE with LG’s communications technologies.

We are all familiar with LG, the South Korean manufacturer of all manner of electronics from smartphones and televisions to washing machines and air conditioners.

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LG partners with former Nokia property HERE for autonomous vehicle information systems was written by the awesome team at Android Police.

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Apple, Google, others say Chinese investment regulations infringe on intellectual property rights

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Germany’s self-driving car solution: Kill animals, damage property, protect humans


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Apple Park boosting local economy with property boom, influx of shoppers

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