People

The system is rigged, and DoNotPay is giving users a way to fight back

How a simple app for fighting parking tickets turned into a way to fight the power.

DoNotPay

DoNotPay started with parking tickets, but now it handles much more.

Image: DoNotPay

On the morning of Jan. 28, 2021, two things happened practically simultaneously. Robinhood told millions of traders they wouldn't be allowed to buy shares in GameStop anymore, and the Twitter account @DoNotPayLaw began to get a lot of notifications. Angry users wanted a way to take action against the company they felt was screwing them out of millions, and needed help doing so. "Is now the time for @DoNotPayLaw to step in and help the little guys with a class action against @RobinhoodApp?" one user asked.

Joshua Browder, DoNotPay's creator and CEO, immediately called his entire staff into a virtual meeting. He told the team they needed to figure out what to do to help. "We quickly realized this was the perfect case for DoNotPay," Browder told me, "because there's the legal system and the financial system, and both systems are stacked against the average person. And this case combines them both." DoNotPay's mission has always been to use tech to help people fight against these stacked systems, whether it's beating a bogus parking ticket or navigating impossible warranty-claim instructions. The company had some experience in this area, too, when it helped people take action against Equifax after its 2017 data breach.

Ultimately, the DoNotPay team split the angry Robinhood users into two groups: on one side, those who want justice and are fighting on principle; on the other, those who just want their money back. For the money-back side, they contacted attorneys in California and New York, asking what kind of information they'd need to enroll new people in a class-action lawsuit, and quickly spun up a tool to automate all of that paperwork. The tool would ask questions: How much did you lose? Which stocks were you buying? When did you buy? When did you sell? Users could upload their receipts and transactions, and DoNotPay would scan the documents for the relevant info and add it to the complaint.

Meanwhile, a DoNotPay employee, working with someone who had lost money through Robinhood, submitted a complaint on their behalf to the SEC. DoNotPay's systems recorded every mouse click and keystroke, building a bot in real time. Once the bot had been shown how to navigate the SEC's website, it could do it automatically for everyone else.

After only a couple of hours, DoNotPay had its tools ready. The company's lawyers reviewed them for compliance issues, gave the thumbs-up, and DoNotPay pushed them live. At 2:17 p.m., Browder tweeted about the new product, "expecting a few hundred people at most to use it." Thousands of people began signing up, paying DoNotPay's $3 monthly subscription to join the suit. Ultimately more than 30,000 people used the Robinhood tools, and on Jan. 28 brought more new users to DoNotPay than any single day in its history. It was a system built to fight the system, and it was working.

Joshua Browder DoNotPay CEO Joshua Browder, who also likes to rock climb.Photo: Joshua Browder

It's important to understand that DoNotPay is not a lawyer. The company's tagline is "The world's first robot lawyer," but the fine print makes clear that "DoNotPay is not a law firm" and does not give legal advice. It says that a few times, actually. Browder is not a lawyer. Most of the people on his team are not lawyers. They can't act like lawyers, go to court like lawyers or do anything lawyers do. DoNotPay is not a law firm.

DoNotPay didn't even start out to be a company, really. It all started with Browder just trying to solve his own problem.

See, in 2015, Browder was getting a lot of parking tickets. "I'm originally from England," he said, "and between high school and college, I was a terrible driver." (He never explained how or whether those two things are connected.) While studying at Stanford, he found himself continually afoul of the parking regulations, and was too broke to pay for all his tickets. Plus, some of them just seemed unfair. "I would scratch a permit, but wouldn't fully scratch the permit completely, and they give you a $60 ticket just for doing that," he offered as an example. He'd also see homeless people living in their cars, getting tickets every day, or older drivers not seeing the tiny print on signs. "I'm not the most sympathetic character for DoNotPay," he admitted, "but certainly it's a massive scam where the governments use parking tickets to raise money, not to punish people."

Browder did some research and learned the most successful tactics for fighting tickets. And he started writing letters, realizing that the simple act of fighting the ticket was sometimes all it took to get out of them. It worked! Not every time, but often enough. And so Browder became known as a guy who could get out of tickets, which meant his friends started asking him for help. They'd send him photos of their tickets, begging him to write his magic letters on their behalf. But if Browder was too busy to park correctly, he certainly didn't have time to be everyone's letter-writer. "So I built a computer program that generated the letters automatically," he said, "really just to keep my friends happy."

Browder uploaded a simple, fillable form letter to an easy domain to remember: donotpay.co.uk. Then he sent it to all his ticket-fighting friends. All they had to do was enter their details, choose from a list of reasons they shouldn't have gotten the ticket, and they'd get a letter ready to mail. Pretty soon, Browder's website had 10 or so cases going.

DoNotPay's early website In 2015, DoNotPay's job was to help with parking tickets.Photo: DoNotPay/The Internet Archive

One of those friends sent the website to another friend, who happened to be a blogger for The Huffington Post (now called HuffPost). She wrote a story with the headline "Young Entrepreneur Of The Week: This Teen Has Made A Website Which Will Fight Your Parking Ticket Fines For You." That post hit the top of Reddit, and Browder's 10 cases turned into 50,000.

Some of those 50,000 requests were for more than just parking tickets. One person wanted to fight federal burglary charges, another asked for help in a messy divorce. Those were pretty clearly outside of Browder's scope (because, again: not a lawyer). But most people asked for help with other smaller legal battles, which suddenly gave Browder a product roadmap.

A bias toward action

The first crucial insight behind DoNotPay was that if it could just help people do something, and could make sure it was cleanly formatted and contained all the right information, that might often be enough. "The systems in government and society are designed for the majority of people who don't take any action," Browder said. "So if you're the consumer that does take action, you can vastly improve your situation." That also helped skirt any legal questions, since providing people with documents and information is very different from giving them legal advice.

Browder spent the next several months adding new capabilities to DoNotPay, mostly spurred by what people asked for or what he saw on the news. The second thing he built was a tool for people to automatically file for compensation for a delayed flight, which the EU allows travelers to do. Then he built a tool for landlord-tenant disputes. In all three cases, the finished product was just a well-crafted form letter "that you could send to the other party and then hope that the other party would comply." It didn't always work, but it worked often enough.

There are at least 30 features in the pipeline, Browder said, not including the things that pop out of the woodwork Robinhood-style. Each one is slightly different, but they all tend to start with good, old-fashioned grunt work. For one project, VP of Product Andrew Kim scoured the websites of every county in America looking for their small claims court forms, downloaded them all and built a tool that automated filling them out. He swore it was enjoyable work. "I like finding loopholes to problems," he said.

Some of the recipients of DoNotPay's automated barrage are grateful for it. Wayne Garcia, the LA parking operations chief, told NPR that "if this process will help the motorists really focus in on why they're contesting their parking citation, it would also help our staff in reviewing the contested parking citation." Others are less enthused: DoNotPay has had to find ways around bot blockers and deal with those who want to throw out its form letters. Kim remembered a back-and-forth in which Hulu would continually raise the amount of money it would charge to authorize a credit card for a free trial, knowing that many of those cards were free, virtual cards that DoNotPay provides users with the promise of never getting accidentally charged for a subscription. "I noticed they'd upped the authorization charge from $1 to like $1.14," he said, after getting multiple complaints that it wasn't working. So DoNotPay increased its limit. So Hulu upped its number again. But eventually, Hulu gave in, and now DoNotPay works just fine.

The price of payback

Somewhere along the way, DoNotPay became a company with a business model. Andreessen Horowitz approached Browder in 2016 and asked him if he wanted to turn his tool into a real business. "At the beginning, I saw myself as, like, an activist," he said. He never wanted to sell ads, and was reluctant to even charge for the product. The Andreessen Horowitz team — led by Marc Andreessen himself, who Browder said he'd always been a fan of — convinced Browder that the way to have the most impact was to build a big, sustainable company. Now, he said, it's breaking even and growing fast.

DoNotPay currently offers more than 150 automated tools. It can help users get a refund from Uber Eats, cancel a Planet Fitness membership, get bank fees waived, cancel all manner of free trials and even sue the pants off a robocaller. DoNotPay can be a burner phone number, a virtual credit card, a digital line-sitter and lots more for anyone paying $36 a year for the service. DoNotPay has 150,000 paid subscribers, and has aided in more than 1.5 million cases so far.

DoNotPay screenshots DoNotPay can now be your throwaway credit card, email address, and more.Photo: DoNotPay

Some users balk at the price, saying it feels wrong to pay just for the possibility of getting their money back. Browder even seems to agree, at least a bit, but said that $3 a month "is the cheapest thing you could make a subscription business to be a real business." He also knows the best way to earn that subscription price is to make it pay for itself. And that's the plan.

Days like Robinhood Day are always good for DoNotPay, when people suddenly become aware of the ways they're being screwed by the system. But most people, most of the time, don't realize the ways in which they're being taken advantage of. Fixing that is DoNotPay's 2021 priority. "We're trying to partner with celebrities to build celebrity content into DoNotPay," Browder said, "where they're setting the example. Like, 'OK, I'm going to manage all my subscriptions so I'm going to save money.'"

Browder seems to know this is an important moment, that people are increasingly aware of the ways that systems — from their banks to their social networks — are not looking out for their best interest. He wants DoNotPay to do even more going forward, fighting on users' behalf without even needing to be asked. In his perfect world, "It just knows you've got a parking ticket, based on public records, and Alexa just says to you, 'Oh, I saw you got a parking ticket. I've appealed it for you.'" The same could work for everything from data-privacy rights to the fees that banks and ISPs love to charge. And they're working on things like natural language processing tools that can pore over a contract or Terms of Service document to look for problems or unannounced changes.

That's the long-term plan, anyway. In the next few years there are still plenty of government and corporate systems to navigate, plenty of robocallers to sue, plenty of free trials to cancel just before they convert to paid subscriptions. DoNotPay wants to do all of that, anytime a user asks.

As for parking tickets? DoNotPay's hit rate for fighting parking tickets is about 65%, Browder said, compared to about a 50% success rate for fighting it yourself, and a big zero for those who never even try. Browder, though, said he's just stopped driving. You can fight parking tickets, but you can't fight San Francisco traffic.

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