British Programmer Wrote an $180 Million App That Protects Consumer Rights
Joshua Browder, founder of DoNotPay. Creative commons licence
This is Joshua Browder. He was 19 when he moved from the U.K. to the U.S. to study at Stanford.
Joshua had a driver’s license by then, but his parking skills weren’t very good. In fact, after moving to California, he already had more than 30 parking tickets to his name.
“I obviously didn’t have the money to pay these really expensive tickets. They were like $100, $200 a piece. I had to find other ways to get these tickets dismissed.”
Story based on these three interviews.
A Few Late Nights Later..
Turns out, you can.
In San Francisco, many parking spots are marked with two parking signs that contradict each other. One sign might say that ‘you can’t park here during work-hours,’ while the other sign might say that ‘you have to pay for parking on workdays,’ without specifying the hours — implying you can park during any hour of the workday if you pay.
Contradicting parking signs are a mistake of the local municipality. So if you appeal your parking ticket, your fine is dismissed. But the average driver doesn’t know about this.
Which forms do you need to fill in? Where do you get them? Where do you send them? It’s easier to just pay the damn thing and move on.
“I learned something very interesting… These tickets are not always issued because you did something wrong. Sometimes, [they’re issued] to just make money for the government.”
Municipalities collect a ton of money this way. In New York alone, almost $2 billion worth of traffic fines are collected into the city budget every year. One could say that confusing parking signs act in the government’s interests.
“I learned that although they issue all of these tickets, they don’t follow their own rules when giving them. And so you could get out of these tickets very easily by writing these legal letters. I spent about 10 hours late into the night researching all of the obscure ways parking tickets are dismissed.”
Joshua realized that getting out of parking fines is a simple algorithm. You get a parking ticket, you put certain words onto a certain form, and you send that form to your municipality via mail.
Josh used this algorithm himself, and he helped his friends avoid paying their tickets, too. With training in computer science, Josh decided to create an app that would do this automatically.
“Joshua Browder, an 18-year-old-Brit studying at Stanford University coded his entire website, DoNotPay.co.uk between the hours of midnight and 3am. […] He says: “The lack of distractions and the goal of eventually being able to sleep allowed me to build a website that would have taken six months to create in less than two weeks.”” (source)
The app, Josh claims, gets tickets dismissed roughly 50% of the time.
“I like to think of the law as society’s operating system.”
Somehow, a popular blogger on Reddit got hold of the app. He made a thread about it, and it went viral. Within days, DoNotPay was downloaded 55,000 times.
The app itself acts as a chatbot. You enter the app, and it asks you:
What is your name?
What is the number of the parking ticket?…
And so on. The app collects your data and automatically fills out the appropriate form. It looks for all possible grounds for appeal, including mistakes on the ticket itself.
Then, someone at the company prints out the filled form and sends it to the right department via registered mail. This way, Josh claims, over $20 million worth of fines have been dismissed from August 2015 to December 2019.
“Some of them really hate us, but some of them actually… When [DoNotPay] launched in LA, for example, NPR asked the LA Parking Ticket Bureau what they thought of DoNotPay, and they said ‘we actually kind of like it, because at least when the appeals come from DoNotPay, it’s in the standardized format.’”
Small-time lawyers, however, aren’t exactly thrilled by the app. After solving parking tickets, Josh moved on to another area of law dear to him: immigration.
Usually, refugees don’t speak the local language. They don’t always know which forms to fill out, where to get them, or where to send them. They go to lawyers for help — who will gladly do this for them for an hourly fee.
Lawyers, however, decide how many hours it takes to fill out a form.
If they’re treating you badly…
Nowadays, Joshua has moved his focus from government injustice towards corporate micro-aggression.
One of the apps within the DoNotPay ecosystem helps customers win hostile customer support conversations.
For example, you call Verizon to cancel your subscription. They re-route you through five representatives, with two-minute hold pauses in between. All this designed so that you drop the call and avoid unsubscribing. The employees get bonuses if they manage to get you off the phone and keep you as a customer.
Here’s what Joshua did. One of the apps within DoNotPay has a single function — it records your phone calls. You click the button, and it calmly announces that “the conversation is being recorded” over the phone — just like the companies do to you. Then, it records the conversation. That’s all the app does.
You can later share that conversation in a public forum or even a news outlet. No sales representative wants to be the one who got their company into a mini-scandal online. Even if they’re simply following a script.
Another app in DoNotPay’s arsenal gives you fake credentials, which you can use to get free memberships without entering your real data. They give you a fake email address, fake credit card number and a fake phone number. Basically, you get an entire burner personality you can use to collect your Netflix and WSJ memberships without entering your actual data.
The app isn’t meant to attract free-riders, as DoNotPay has mechanisms that prevent you from abusing it. It’s meant to give you an opportunity to protect your data with companies you don’t trust. Is watching a single movie worth risking having your email address exposed on the internet?
Or maybe you’re just worried you’ll forget your trial membership and pay $100 for a subscription you meant to cancel. Some companies pledge to send you an email reminder before the trial expires, but those emails often land in spam. Not all companies will be eager to give you a refund.
As of November 2020, DoNotPay has an entire ecosystem of apps (100+) designed to protect consumers and citizens (source):
Customer service disputes: e.g. claiming compensation for delayed flights, canceling gym memberships
Hidden money: e.g. bank fee refunds, birthday rewards, loyalty perks
Free trial card: allowing users to sign up for free trials using a virtual credit card that automatically cancels the membership when the free trial ends
Skip the hold: DoNotPay places customer service calls and alerts the user when a rep is available
Small claims court: preparing all the necessary documents and filings for small-claims court, along with a script for the user to read in court
Traffic and parking appeals: DoNotPay’s original bot assists users with parking ticket appeals
The Union of Netflix’ers
Joshua’s ultimate goal for the company is to build a user base big enough and committed enough to act as a DIY union against corporations.
“When we have 5 million, 10 million subscribers… That gives us leverage to actually negotiate with the corporations on your behalf. Like a union, almost. So we can say to Comcast, ‘treat our five million customers better, give them discounts, or we’ll switch them to Verizon overnight and spam you with legal requests.’”
Joshua is a fighter for people’s rights, and this particular trait runs in the family. His great-grandfather, Earl Browder, was the leader of the Communist Party USA. His father, Bill Browder, is titled ‘Putin’s number-one enemy’ for his activism against the regime.
Joshua’s app has just received a $12 million investment this year, valuing their 8-man operation at $80 million. Josh says the app’s popularity surged during Covid-19, with lots of people having trouble getting their flight tickets refunded.
DoNotPay is a prime example that doing social good and making money (the app charges a $3/mo subscription fee) are not mutually exclusive items. With big tech companies enjoying near-monopoly power today, social good opportunities aren’t rare.
Companies like Youtube force us into “watch-three-ads-in-ten-minutes-or-pay-ten-dollars” decisions — because they can. But they also create a subset of angry users under their umbrella. A subset for young, clear-thinking people to overtake — or protect.