For Australia’s nearly 18 million licensed drivers, it is about to get a whole lot easier to get out of paying parking tickets.
A popular online service and corresponding app, dubbed the world’s first robot lawyer, is set to launch Down Under after having massive success in the UK and US markets.
British programmer and Stanford dropout Joshua Browder, 22, is the wunderkind behind the service who launched DoNotPay when he was just 19 after accruing a pile of parking tickets he was unable to pay.
It began as a side project as he invested his time in becoming a local expert in parking infringements, and more importantly, eschewing them. He then set about developing an automated program that people can use to plug in their information and the circumstances surrounding the parking ticket, and the program matches the user with a defence, and in some cases automatically appeals the fine for them.
After raising nearly $6 million from Silicon Valley backers in July (firms which were early investors in Facebook and AirBnB), the parking ticket-fighting bot is going global.
“It turns out that the problems with parking tickets - and I’ve learned this from switching from the UK to the US - are global problems,” Mr Browder told Yahoo News Australia. “It’s just a case of substituting in the correct laws.”
About six months ago he was approached by a Sydney law firm that thought the system could be replicated in Australia and offered help to bring it here.
Today, Australians will now be able to access the system that successfully contested 160,000 parking tickets across London and New York just months after launching in 2016.
Mr Browder says the DoNotPay chatbot - which is powered by a type of artificial intelligence - has a 60 per cent success rate when disputing parking infringements in those markets.
“We’ve appealed over $20 million in the US and the UK and we expect a similar rate (of success) in Australia,” he said.
So how does DoNotPay work?
Once described by the BBC as “the Robin Hood of the internet”, Mr Browder and his company rely on a deep understanding of the minutia of consumer law and deploy purpose-built software to exploit that understanding on an automated scale.
The service is completely free and doesn’t collect or use your data. Users can log on and will be asked a bunch of questions by the “lawyer” chat bot, enabling it to sniff out a legal technicality to challenge the ticket.
“It plays a game of 20 questions with the user to match them with a defence. It has a back and forth discussion with them,” Mr Browder explained.
After uploading a picture of the infringement notice, the user goes through a number of simple steps with the bot.
“It asks for the location and once it figures out a defence then it uses all of that information to generate a letter with all of the (mitigating) laws plugged in that can be submitted to the local government.”
In Australia, DoNotPay is testing automatic submission in some jurisdictions, but in other areas users will need to print off the letter and send it to authorities along with their infringement notice to contest the fine.
“The biggest reason parking tickets are dismissed in Australia, unsurprisingly, is the signage. There are all these rules around signage and if they’re not followed around 50 per cent of parking tickets, I estimate, can be appealed for just that reason,” Mr Browder said.
“Another reason is any mistake on the ticket - if they say the car is the wrong colour or things like that ... all these generic reasons, if you put in the Australian codes you can actually be very successful.”
While it helps you dispute an array of traffic charges, it’s parking tickets that have proven the most successful.
DoNotPay takes on subscriptions like Netflix and Amazon
While it was the parking ticket service that made Mr Browder a rising star in tech circles, his company has gone on to launch a string of other helpful products to boost consumer rights.
They include services that call companies and wait on hold for you and a program that gets you money back on plane tickets if the airline drops the price after you bought your airfare.
But the most popular - eclipsing even the parking ticket bot - is a service that allows users to sign up for free trials without the worry of ever being charged if they forget to cancel before the free period ends.
The latest DoNotPay service, also launching in Australia, works by giving users a virtual credit card number (supplied by a global banking partner of DoNotPay) that you can use to sign up for free trials of any service anonymously – think Netflix, Amazon Prime etc.
It also generate a fake e-mail address to use which forwards onto your own e-mail address, but this feature appears to be having some issues in the Australian rollout at the moment.
When the free trial period ends, the card automatically declines to be charged and ends your free trial. DoNotPay will send you a notification in case you want to continue your subscription but you never have to worry about forgetting and being charged.
The service - which skirts Australian regulations - has proven popular in the US but it will likely take a little while to be perfectly tailored for Australian users if it takes off.
DoNotPay expects users to pay for access to certain premium services, and while the Free Trial virtual card is free, one Yahoo reader said he was prompted to hand over his credit card details and was charged a small fee and couldn’t immediately cancel his account. Mr Browder said authorisation fees can appear on cards but are refunded by DoNotPay.
“What we’re trying to de eventually is just give you the leverage to fight back against these corporations and governments, who are just trying to suck up the money with these fees,” Mr Browder said.
Eventually, when there are enough people using the company’s suite of tools, it creates a “union effect” which the 22-year-old entrepreneur wants to use to keep big companies and governments honest.
“What happens when you have three million people on these tools is something very interesting,” he said. “Because all of a sudden you have this leverage to actually negotiate with the corporation and say if you don’t start treating our customers better, we’ll switch everyone to your competitor overnight and we’ll also spam you with 10,000 legal requests.”
That tends to make them sit up and take notice, he said.
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