Fireside Chatter

Kindling and sparks from Cozy.

Skirting a scam: How one renter avoided getting duped by a fake listing

Written on September 19, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

The last time Marko Kovic looked for an apartment in Zurich, Switzerland, he started to suspect the landlord wasn’t who she said she was. He played along, hoping to understand the methodology of the possible listing scam, and he wrote about his experience on Medium.

The scammer mentioned Cozy as a “protection company” that could ensure Marko’s advance payment of 1400 Swiss francs, and the “landlord” went so far as to put a Cozy logo on a fake invoice.

We take these types of scams seriously, especially since this one involved our name. In this case, the fraudulent landlord didn’t try to list a property through Cozy, but it’s worth noting that we’re constantly working to catch fraudulent landlords before they can list a property. We catch most scammers before they get any traction, and we want to help renters avoid all types of fraudulent “landlords” and “listings.”

We got in touch with Marko to learn more about his experience with the scammer.

You approached the listing with a healthy amount of skepticism. Why? Had you heard of other people being scammed in Zurich?

Marko:  Fortunately, I don’t know anyone who has actually ended up being scammed (or maybe people just don’t like admitting it). But, unfortunately, most people in Zurich and other bigger cities in Switzerland seem to be quite aware of apartment scammers. Scammers have become something of a constant parasitic companion, it seems. I suppose the scammers wouldn’t be doing what they are doing if they didn’t succeed some of the time.

When did you know you were going to write about your interaction with “Isabella”?

Marko: As soon as “Isabella” mentioned her supposed background (living abroad and happening to have a nice place that she’d like to rent out), I thought, “Alright, this is probably yet another scam. Let’s have some fun, and waste the scammer’s time in the process.”

Why do you think they chose to use Cozy in their scheme?

Marko: I believe they wanted to create the impression that a trustworthy third party is involved. As much as it hurts me to say, that was a smart move. My first thought, fueled by the desire for the whole thing to be true, was “Well, Cozy is obviously legit, so maybe the apartment is legit as well?”

We loved your advice to apartment hunters to “curb your initial enthusiasm and analyze the facts in a level-headed, non-emotional manner.” Do you have any tips for helping people do that?

Marko: I think there’s a simple rule of thumb that can help a lot: If you are asked to send someone money in advance, before signing an apartment lease and before even seeing the place, assume that someone is trying to scam you. If you stick to this rule, I think you’re safe from most apartment scams.

Based on your experience, is there any way to ensure a landlord’s who they say they are without meeting them in person?

Marko: Renting an apartment, I believe, usually doesn’t happen with simple verbal agreements, but rather in written form with something like an apartment lease. So if a landlord is trying to forgo this “normal” way of doing things, it’s probably wise to curb your enthusiasm.

What do you expect to see from a prospective landlord before they ask you for any money?

Marko: In my opinion, it should always be possible to have a look at an apartment before signing a lease, let alone sending anyone any money.

Have you seen any fake listings since this incident?

Marko: I think I have, but I haven’t reacted to them. Not in the least because fake listings tend have a somewhat short half-life. Take the money and run, so to say.

We hope you found a great apartment! Did you find a great apartment?

Marko: Thank you so much—as a matter of fact, I did!

The long goodbye

Written on September 14, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

I admit: I still pay for some things using paper checks. Since becoming part of the team at Cozy—where we help people understand the perks of paying and collecting rent online—I’ve started to question my own check writing habits.

Not only are checks expensive to process and cumbersome to use, they’re highly prone to fraud, which proves that paper checks are outdated currency, especially for those of us who have reliable access to the internet and can pay our bills online.

Yet every so often, I find myself reaching for my checkbook, cloaked in its horrible bank-provided plastic cover. Then I go through the ritual of figuring out the date, spelling out some numbers, and signing my name.

I’m not alone. A lot of Americans helped make the total number of checks paid in 2012 amount to 18.3 billion. (Related, but not really: oversized checks are more popular than ever.) So why do we keep writing checks?

Maybe it’s cultural

Other countries just don’t write as many checks as we do in America. In the UK, only 3% of people between the ages of 18-24 own a checkbook, which inspired UK banks to plan to phase out checks by 2018. But they changed their minds, citing the impact on the elderly, the most vulnerable in society, and small businesses and charities that rely on checks.

Australia has an electronic payment system, BPAY, which exists in part because of a centralized banking system (BPAY is owned by Australia’s four largest banks).

In the U.S., the existence of 6,000-plus banks, some of which are regulated by states, has made sweeping changes to payment systems nearly impossible. And the Fed doesn’t have the power to mandate electronic payments like the EU did in 2003 with the Single Euro Payments Area. That means American consumers and the private sector will be the ones driving the adoption of technologies that will help make paper checks obsolete.

Breaking a habit

Back in 2002, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, posited that we haven’t yet reached the kind of critical mass that would create a robust network of electronic payment alternatives to paper checks, a “chicken-and-egg problem.” “Consumers would find it preferable to use electronic payments if many other consumers do, but since a critical mass has not yet adopted the technology, consumers largely do not use it.”

But you’d think in the past 14 years, we’d have reached that tipping point. According to the most recent data from the Federal Reserve about how Americans pay for things, from 2009 to 2012, the total number of checks paid declined at an annual rate of 9.2 percent. That may not sound like a lot until you take into account that since 2000, the number of checks paid has declined more than 50%, from 41.9 billion to 18.3 billion.

That’s not all. The sharp rise in the Google search for “how to write a check,”reveals that either we’re forgetting how to pay by check, or, more likely, we never learned. People are more interested in paying rent online, which corresponds with the average check amount last year: $1,487.

Even though many industries are transitioning away from paper checks, including the U.S. Treasury, which is working to stop making one-time payments with paper checks, a whopping 50% of U.S. companies use checks to pay their bills.

I realize that accepting paper checks slows cash flow, but for small businesses, that lag time might be worth avoiding electronic payment processing fees. My friend Pam, who runs a flower shop in another city, had no way (and no desire) to accept an electronic payment from me. “Sorry,” she told me, “it’s got to be a check. I’m not set up for anything else.” Good thing I had a check, an envelope, and a stamp.

Let’s face it, check writing is a habit. For more than three years, I wrote a monthly check to my son’s preschool for his tuition, and I hand delivered it. In the weeks before he went to kindergarten, I learned the preschool accepted electronic payments. I could have saved myself a lot of hassle (including the time I forgot the check and had to make an extra trip to deliver it on time) by paying electronically. I’d just never thought to ask if the option existed. Maybe I’m just old.

“Older people are just a little, or a lot, afraid of computers,” Howard Bodenhorn, professor of economics at Clemson University, told me over the phone. “The idea that all their financial information can just be put out there somewhere terrifies them.”

Change is coming

Howard noticed that cashiers at Walmart now send checks through digital scanners then return the paper checks to the customers, on the spot, which saves the company the hassle of managing stacks of checks every day. That’s legal thanks to Check 21, the act that allowed the recipient of a check to create a digital image of it.

Simple, the tech company that offers digital banking, decided not to offer its customers paper checks as part of checking accounts when it launched in 2009, in part because Simple’s CEO and co-founder, Josh Reich, didn’t use checks in Australia.

That choice wasn’t always easy. “It’s about trying to layer technology onto something built for paper processing,” said Amy Dunn, communications specialist at Simple. “That’s the source of much frustration with the banking system.”

Simple does let customers send paper treasurers checks, because ultimately, Amy said, it’s the customer’s money, and “they should be able to move it how they want to.”

With the demise of paper checks, Amy noted, banks won’t have the option to do things like “check stacking,” the now illegal practice of processing the biggest check first so an account runs out of money faster, incurring more overdraft fees. It’s one of many traditional banking practices that are considered predatory.

Unlike cash, which Howard predicts will stay around for as long as people continue to operate underground economies (forever), he predicts checks will “disappear long before $100 bills,” probably in the next 15 years.

Larry Schweikart, a banking and business historian at the University of Dayton, says he, like many Americans, use paper checks because they create a sense of independence, accountability, and security. He doesn’t own a debit card, and he promises to keep buying his groceries with paper checks until the bitter end (he predicts checks will obsolete in 10 years). “Once stores stop taking checks, there’s not much you can do,” he told me.

Unlike Larry, I won’t miss my checkbook one bit. But I’m not about to set it on fire, either. Even though I don’t have a landlord who demands I pay my rent using checks, sometimes, I still need it. Besides, I don’t want to melt the plastic.

Our next step: Cozy Series B funding

Written on August 30, 2016 by Gino Zahnd

I’m happy to announce that we’ve closed our Series B round. It’s the next step in our mission to bring peace of mind to renters, property managers, and landlords everywhere. This capital will be used to expand the scope of our offerings, and to build out key new areas of the company. We also see profitability on the horizon, and our expectation is this capital infusion will allow us to be aggressive with growth while still achieving the goal of long-term sustainability.

The $8.45 million round was led by American Family Ventures, and 100% of our Series A investors participated, including Social Capital and General Catalyst. We’re excited to have AmFam join Team Cozy. They’ve been a real pleasure to work with, and they will be a significant ally as we continue building and adding services.

 

What’s happened since our Series A?

Before Cozy launched in June 2013, there simply wasn’t a service to help independent landlords or small property managers run their rental businesses. We’ve created that market, despite spending very little money on marketing or customer acquisition. The need was there, and we capitalized on it. It took time, patience, a ton of strategic groundwork, and dogged resilience to get to this point. Now that the market is there and growing, we’re seeing new ways to unlock value that we could only imagine a few years ago. We know we’ve just started scratching the surface.

We hit a key inflection point in January 2015 and grew over 900% last year. We’ve already tripled our business in 2016, and we can see profitability on the horizon; we’ll hit that milestone in a matter of months. Here are a couple of graphs showing how things have been going.

Cozy revenue. The real estate industry seasonally slows from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.

Cozy monthly payment volume. We’ll pass $.5 billion USD annually in Q3 2016.

To date, 250,000 landlords, property managers, and renters have signed up for Cozy, and there are now more than 100,000 Cozy-managed properties in 11,500 ZIP codes. We’re used everywhere; if the Cozy community were a Single Family REIT, we’d be the largest REIT in the country, two times over, in terms of properties managed. (Invitation Homes is the largest REIT, with around 50,000 homes.) You all are awesome.

 

So what comes next?

We’re focusing on our customers, just like always.

We have a clear roadmap, and we’re opportunistic. We listen to our customers, and we react accordingly to what makes sense for the long term. For example, we’ve seen a natural expansion of our landlord/manager market. New customers are bringing larger numbers of units to the service. As such, we’re working with those larger customers with hundreds of units to introduce features that will continue to make their lives easier, and allow them to grow their businesses with Cozy.

Likewise, this fall we’ll introduce two new products designed and built specifically for renters. If you’re a renter, you’ll soon be able to take Cozy with you no matter where you live, even if your landlord or manager doesn’t use Cozy (we’ll help you get them on board!).

We’re building out new parts of the organization.

With less than 25 people, we’ve been running a lean operation and punching above our weight. While we’ll always be svelte, it is time for us to build out a few new strategic areas of the company, and grow our existing teams. We’re hiring across the company with new roles in Product Management, Data Science, Design, and Engineering.

I recently wrote about how to apply and land a job at Cozy. Take it to heart if you’d like to join us!

We’re more focused on diversity than ever before.

Cozy customers come from all walks of life. Our renter community is made up of students paying less than $200 a month in rent, as well as professional athletes paying over $10,000 a month (sometimes all up front for a year lease!). Since housing is universal, and the problems we’re solving affect everyone, we know that if our team reflects diverse perspectives and experiences, our product and company will be stronger. It just makes good business sense.

Good work, done well, for the right reasons.

Team Cozy has matured immeasurably in the past four years, and we know we’re poised to take the company to the next level. As a team and family, we value the trust around the table more than anything. That trust leads to honesty, and ultimately better decision making. Are we perfect? Not remotely. Is this a magic time in our journey? Absolutely.

I can’t wait to see where we go next.

Customer support: saving humanity in the digital age

Written on August 29, 2016 by Kayla Warfield

As technology advances, our world changes, whether we like it or not. Now we live with designer genes, cars that drive themselves, and online apps that make accomplishing everything from ordering pizza to filling prescriptions easier than ever before.

But what accompanies this progress? Each added layer of complexity creates more potential for error, which can be frustrating and alienating for technology users who can’t keep up.

The everyday heroes in this digital age are the outstanding customer support folks who nurse the human connection at the core of each product. I’m one of them. Like ER docs, we jump to assess new cases, tend to the most pressing issues, and stabilize problems if we need to call in a specialist.

Our Cozy support team alleviates the stress of understanding new technology in the same way that doctors gently share their scientific knowledge when consulting with a patient. Just as doctors nurture their patients, we help rid Cozy customers of the complications of “disease” and teach people how to keep their accounts in shape.

Cozy “patients” come to us in all different states of current and past health. When someone emails us, we gather as much information as we can about their current situation by reading through the symptoms they describe.

Because Cozy customers come from different backgrounds, their ability to pinpoint or explain their ailments can vary. Much of our diagnostic process involves figuring out the root of their concern.

In medicine and customer support, a set of symptoms can indicate a variety of conditions. Nausea and an upset stomach are indicators of the flu, but for a large percentage of the world’s population, they could also be signs of pregnancy. Cozy’s support inquiries aren’t quite that monumental in nature, but there a number of different ways that a Cozy customer could go astray that would cause their accounts to present with similar “symptoms.”

Let’s say a landlord uses Cozy to keep track of five college roommates with two sub-letters during the spring semester. If his balance has been $42 overpaid since October, it’s our job to sift through the ledger history to find whether it’s because his tenants accidentally overpaid, or if he simply forgot to add a $42 charge to his ledger for a utility bill.

In these cases it’s important to narrow all of the potential possibilities down before moving forward. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong at all!

As we collect information on a Cozy case, we begin to form an initial hypothesis about what is most likely going wrong. This analysis can best be described as pattern recognition. While this term sounds robotic, it’s actually a process driven by human intuition and reading between the lines. Just like in the medical field, the more a support specialist understands or works with a certain type of Cozy malady, the easier it is to recognize it in the future.

Once we begin to identify potential causes, the support team uses a number of tools to dig a little deeper.

Detecting and attacking bugs

“Bugs,” or foreign diseases, wreak havoc on a perfectly functioning human body. (That’s why five days after sitting next to a sniffling stranger on an airplane, you come down with the flu.)

Technological bugs are similar moments, when our customers have done everything correctly, but something beyond their control goes wrong. These bugs can ruin customers’ experiences and destroy trust if they’re not addressed promptly. Just like a body’s immune system, our support team needs to anticipate and react.

Long before a person goes to the doctor, and even before they start to feel sick, certain parts of the immune system can detect the first signs of disease. White blood cells are on the front lines combating disease; they find and attack potential pathogens. In addition to fending off these foreign invaders, these immune cells are equipped to help initiate and coordinate widespread defense responses.

Part of the reason immune cells succeed is because they’re equipped with antibodies; tiny detectors that are so effective at diagnosing diseases in the body that doctors often use them to run laboratory blood tests. In the body, when an antibody detects a threat, it sounds an alarm that calls all available defense mechanisms to come to that immune cell’s aid.

Our customer support team attacks coding bugs and account errors much like white blood cells descend on anything that looks out of the ordinary. We work in tandem with the engineering team, functioning like antibodies locating bugs.

Cozy’s engineering team has built and integrated specific tests that monitor unusual or unwanted bugs in Cozy’s system to help those of us on the support team quickly recognize bugs and call in additional help. They’ve also created systems that our support team use on a daily basis to review account history, check the current status of payments, figure out exactly when and where a user got off track, and identify bugs in the application that the tests may have missed.

The support and engineering teams work hand in hand as the engineers develop a fix. Then the support team works with customers to test the solution. Translating the engineering jargon behind the diagnosis into a clear and intelligible prescription for the customer can be challenging, but it’s an important step in helping Cozy customers feel comfortable using our services.

Misunderstanding creates fear, so we aim to be clear and transparent when we communicate with customers. We want to empower them to solve their own problems when possible, and for them to feel confident coming to us when there is a potential bug in the system.

DNA: the first coding language

Contained in our DNA is the code that defines the function of every cell in our bodies, and our collection of genes affect our innate physical traits. But there are so many ways to express the information stored in our DNA—both good and bad—and that’s what makes us human.

As multiple teams at Cozy collaborate to make design and engineering developments to Cozy’s code, we create a more robust system that’s less susceptible to bugs and easier to use. Re-writing Cozy’s code bit by bit is an important way we keep growing and improving our services, and everyone at Cozy strives to be aware of the way our DNA is expressed.

I’m not talking about fancy layouts (although our interface is pretty snazzy), but rather, focusing on how to add value to our customers’ lives. Our support team doesn’t just answer questions, we listen and learn from each customer to help guide Cozy’s future.

I worked in medical research before joining Cozy, so I’ve seen how the human body is influenced by the world around it. Technology, like any other tool, can be empowering, but it can also be a burden, especially when you don’t know quite how to use it yet.

I’m only one member of Team Cozy, but I know the whole team works hard to relieve customers’ stress so everyone can have more time to focus on what really matters…being human.

Kayla Warfield studied molecular biology at Colorado College and worked in medical research labs at the University of Oregon and Oregon Health & Sciences University before joining Cozy’s Customer Support team in February 2016.

Meet Cozy’s fermenter in chief

Written on August 22, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

In the kitchen at Cozy HQ, a large glass jar holds a slimy, two-inch thick disc floating in murky brown liquid.

The disc is alive; it’s a SCOBY, an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” Essentially, it’s a colony of organisms that ferments things, including the sweet tea in which it bathes. Eventually the SCOBY will turn the tea into kombucha, a tart beverage packed with probiotics and a hint of carbonation.

Rob Galanakis, Cozy’s VP of engineering, is the person behind the project. He keeps the company fridge stocked with kombucha by fermenting one batch at a time in the large jar before transferring the drink to smaller bottles.

“It seemed like a nice thing to do,” he says. “I like to make and share food.”

His role as kombucha maker—and SCOBY caretaker—earned him the title “fermenter in chief.”

For two-and-a-half years, Rob lived in Iceland, where he worked for a video game developer. While he was there, he developed a taste for new foods, from fermented shark to dried fish with butter. He also ate a lot of skyr, an Icelandic sour yogurt, but he couldn’t find anything comparable when he moved back to the U.S.

In search of a replacement for the probiotic health benefits of the yogurt, he started buying and drinking kombucha. Then he realized he could make the drink himself.

He made a few batches at home (his son loves the stuff), and when he saw some Cozyans drinking store-bought kombucha, he had an idea. Rob bought a five-gallon glass jar, got a SCOBY from one of his wife’s friends, and brewed his first batch of kombucha at the office using loose tea, cheesecloth, and some near-boiling water from an instant hot water dispenser.

Since making that first batch of kombucha, Rob has experimented with different ingredients. He replaced black tea with yerba mate then coffee (black tea is best, he reports). He’s also made other fermented foods and shared them at work: pickled eggs in beet juice, mead, sauerkraut, and non-alcoholic berry sodas.

Since the SCOBY grows vigorously, and can take on what Rob says is “much more than the mass of a small dog,” he’s peeled off layers for coworkers who want to make their own kombucha at home. One time Rob turned a layer of the SCOBY into bite-sized dehydrated nuggets using his food dehydrator. The result? Scoby Snacks.

Even though the SCOBY isn’t on payroll, Design Director Dave Handlong thought it needed a name. Now it’s known as Scoby Macguire, which beat out runners-up Scoby Bryant and Scoby Keith.

When a batch of kombucha is fermenting, Rob tastes it daily to see if it’s reached the perfect equilibrium of tart and sweet. Sometimes, when that day arrives, he’s too busy with work to move the kombucha into bottles. After all, the evolution of the kombucha isn’t something he can predict, part of the beauty of fermentation.

“You can guide the process,” he says, “but ultimately, you’re not in total control.”

Rob doesn’t follow an exact recipe, which leads to surprises and variations in flavors. It’s all part of the fun, he says.

Here’s Rob’s approximate recipe for kombucha:

  1. Use about 10-15 tablespoons of plain loose black tea per gallon of finished kombucha. Put the tea into a piece of cheesecloth and tie it with a string to form a “teabag.” Make sure the water has room to circulate inside the bag.
  2. Steep the tea at a relatively low temperature (150-170℉) for a couple hours. Be sure to brew a highly concentrated tea, so you can cool it off by diluting it with cold water (step four).
  3. After the tea is brewed, remove the teabag and add granulated sugar to taste. Use less sugar for a shorter ferment and lighter flavor, or more sugar for stronger sweet and sour flavors. Rob usually aims for an overly sweet Southern-style sweet tea.
  4. Add cold water bring all the liquid to room temperature. Add some existing kombucha (about 10% by volume) and your SCOBY. Add room temperature water to achieve your target volume. If your SCOBY sinks, don’t worry, it’s probably just the water temperature or new environment.
  5. Taste each day to see how it’s coming along. You should taste the result of fermentation after a couple days. If you don’t, give it longer. If your SCOBY is on the surface and has no mold on top, it’s probably fine. If it’s been totally on the bottom of a week and your tea has no bubbles if you stir it, you may have a problem. When in doubt, remember to trust your tastebuds and believe in your SCOBY.
  6. You can improvise in countless ways, which is part of the fun!

If you’re interested in learning more about wild fermentation, Rob recommends reading “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz.