Amazon Prime Student Members: Get 40% Off an Echo Device Right Now

Image: Amazon

If you’re an Amazon Prime Student member, Amazon is running a pretty solid Back to School deal right now on Echo devices that allows you to get 40% off a device for your dorm room.

The deal covers the Echo Plus, Echo Show 5, and the Echo Spot. You can only get the deal on one device, so choose wisely. You also have to enter a promo code at checkout to actually get the savings, as Android Central reports.

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Here are the promo codes as well as what you’ll end up paying for each. Worth noting: The Echo 5 and Echo Plus also on sale right now, so even if you don’t have a student account you can score a bit of a deal without that promo code.

Echo Show 5 ($53.99) – SHOWFIVE40

Echo Spot ($77.99) – SPOT 40

Echo Plus ($89.99) – PLUS40

All three are a bit more than the $30 you’ll pay for an Echo Dot; however, they make owning a nicer version of an Alexa device a lot more reachable.

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If you’re a student and you’re not a member of Amazon Prime Student, that’s also worth a look. The service essentially halves the cost of a Prime membership for verified students, taking the price from $12.99 a month to $6.49 a month.

Beyond having the opportunity for deals like this one on Echo devices, a Prime Student membership will also allow you to get access to Amazon Music Unlimited for an additional $.99 a month rather than paying full price.

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Is Real Estate Crowdfunding a Good Investment?

Ask a rich person how they got rich, and there’s a good chance they’ll say they invested in real estate. In fact, real estate is generally accepted as one of the most solid ways to build wealth. That’s why there’s no shortage of people who long to buy a home and watch its value rise over time. There are the landlords willing to manage years of tenants in exchange for an eventual return on their purchase. And then there are the folks you see on TV who buy houses to flip seeking a seemingly near-instant profit.

Even if buying a home doesn’t match up with your personal vision of the American Dream, you may still want to consider investing in real estate. And buying a piece of property outright is no longer your only option for investing. Real estate crowdfunding is yet another way you can diversify your investment portfolio, often for less of an up-front expenditure.

But with a boom in startups and platforms aiming to make real estate crowdfunding easy, it can be hard to tell if this method of investing is right for your portfolio. Here’s what you need to know before you get started.

What is real estate crowdfunding?

As the name implies, real estate crowdfunding allows you to contribute your money toward a larger real estate investment. “You get access to deals that wouldn’t have been available to individual investors,” said Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder and CEO of commercial real estate technology company SquareFoot. “It’s not only about access, but also the size of some of these transactions. The average consumer can’t buy a $10 million building, however they can take on a $100 share of it.”

How that contribution is used depends on the platform through which you choose to make your investment. Some real estate crowdfunding platforms buy and manage properties, while some take the pooled money and lend it to other real estate investors.

Likewise, the type of return you see on your investment depends on the platform you choose. “Some crowdfunding websites have pooled funds that offer the same returns to all investors,” Brian Davis, director of education at property management app SparkRental explained. “Fundrise operates this way, with a few different fund options to choose from. Other crowdfunding sites allow you to pick and choose the individual projects you want to invest in. GroundFloor is an example.” (Davis personally uses both Fundrise and GroundFloor.)

Why it’s popular right now

Fundrise. GroundFloor. PeerStreet. Realty Mogul. CrowdStreet. RealtyShares. RealCrowd. EquityMultiple. I could go on! There are plenty of options for people interested in real estate crowdfunding, and they all have very startup-y names.

Real estate crowdfunding has exploded in recent years due to the passage of the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act of 2012. That legislation made updates to the way investment capital can be raised, and made it OK to advertise investing opportunities. The JOBS Act also loosened restrictions around who has to register the securities they’re selling with the SEC. As Investopedia puts it, “Essentially, Title II [of the JOBS Act] gives crowdfunding firms the green light to direct-market to a large pool of potential investors via social media and the Internet.”

As this method of investing evolves, you can expect to see more niche-specific options pop up. “It’s becoming more sophisticated with more choices for the consumer,” Wasserstrum said, citing the example of Fund That Flip, which invests in loans for house flippers. “As with a lot of things in real estate technology, we’re still in the earliest innings.”

How crowdfunding differs from REITs

The online crowdfunding aspect may be new, but investing your money toward larger real estate projects is far from novel. Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs, have been around since the 1960s. REITs allow investors to buy publicly traded real estate projects through a standard brokerage account, 401(K) or IRA. Each REIT focuses on a specific kind of real estate, from apartment complexes to storage units to hospitals or malls, Business Insider notes.

“They’ve been around for a long time, and are just as liquid as stocks or funds,” Davis said. “Although the problem is that they often move alongside the stock market since they’re traded on the same exchanges, which partially defeats the purpose of diversification.”

What it costs to make money with real estate investing

There are, as always, potential costs to consider. Crowdfunding platform fees vary, typically featuring lower fees in exchange for higher investments. For example, CrowdStreet requires a minimum investment of $10,000 for a minimum 36 months, but doesn’t charge account fees. Fundrise lets you get started with $500, but charges a fee of 1% per year, which is relatively steep compared to fees for roboadvisors, which tend to be around 0.25% to 0.60%. You can expect fees in the 1% range for an actively managed portfolio.

Be patient, because you won’t get rich quick

Traditional REITs are usually the long-term real-estate investment that performs best, with an average annual return of more than 9%. Meanwhile, Joseph Hogue of My Stock Market Basics examined average returns on real estate crowdfunding platforms: Open investments had a return of around 14.7%, with completed deals averaging 14.6%. The returns can be attractive, but consider the short, post-recession life span of real estate crowdfunding startups in comparison to traditional REITs and other investing vehicles. (Once they’ve had a longer shelf life on the. market, the returns may not be so consistently high.) The diversification potential and ease of crowdfunding are the best benefits of this type of investing, according to Hogue.

If you’re just getting started with real estate crowdfunding, you should be comfortable having your money tied up for a while. “Most investments are designed to last at least a year, sometimes five years or longer,” Davis said. “In some cases you can sell your investment [sooner], but usually with a penalty and not quickly.”

And while real estate crowdfunding is as passive as it gets, you don’t have as much control over how much money you can make on your investment, like you would if you bought a rental property and managed it.

If you’re not investing at all yet —meaning you don’t have a 401(K), Roth IRA, or brokerage account—you’re probably not ready for real estate investing. It’s best to start with the basics, and save most of your investing goals for after you’ve tackled debt and built an emergency fund. But if you’re comfortable with your current portfolio and want to mix things up, real estate crowdfunding can help you diversify.

“Start small at first, to build comfort,” Davis advised. “Nothing says you have to invest thousands right away.”

Twitter picks up team from narrative app Lightwell in its latest effort to improve conversations

Twitter’s ongoing, long-term efforts to make conversations easier to follow and engage with on its platform is getting a boost with the company’s latest acquihire. The company has picked up the team behind Lightwell, a startup that had built a set of developer tools to build interactive, narrative apps, for an undisclosed sum. Lightwell’s founder and CEO, Suzanne Xie, is becoming a director of product leading Twitter’s Conversations initiative, with the rest of her small team joining her on the conversations project.

(Sidenote: Sara Haider, who had been leading the charge on rethinking the design of Conversations on Twitter, most recently through the release of twttr, Twitter’s newish prototyping app, announced that she would be moving on to a new project at the company after a short break. It’s not clear whether twttr will be moving on as well: I’m asking.)

The Lightwell/Twitter news was announced late yesterday both by Lightwell itself and Twitter’s VP of product Keith Coleman. A Twitter spokesperson also confirmed the deal to TechCrunch in a short statement today: “We are excited to welcome Suzanne and her team to Twitter to help drive forward the important work we are doing to serve the public conversation,” he said.

To be clear, this is more acqui-hire than hire: only the Lightwell team (of what looks like three people) is joining Twitter. The Lightwell product will no longer be developed, but it is not going away, either. Xie noted in a separate Medium post that apps that have already been built (or plan to be built) on the platform will continue to work. It will also now be free to use.

Lightwell originally started life in 2012 as Hullabalu, as one of the many companies producing original-content interactive children’s stories for smartphones and tablets. In a sea of children-focused storybook apps, Hullabalu’s stories stood out not just because of the distinctive cast of characters that the startup had created, but for how the narratives were presented: part book, part interactive game, the stories engaged children and moved narratives along by getting the users to touch and drag elements across the screen.

hullabalu lightwell

After some years, Hullabalu saw an opportunity to package its technology and make it available as a platform for all developers, to be used not just by other creators of children’s content, but advertisers and more. It seems the company shifted at that time to make Lightwell its main focus. In its startup life, it went through YCombinator, TechStars, and picked up some $6.5 million in funding (per Crunchbase), from investors that included Joanne Wilson, SV Angel, Vayner, Spark Labs, Great Oak, Scout Ventures and more.

If turning Hullabalu into Lightwell was a pivot, then the exit to Twitter can be considered yet another interesting shift in how talent and expertise optimised for one end can be repurposed to meet another.

One of Twitter’s biggest challenges over the years has been trying to create a way to make conversations (also narratives of a kind) easy to follow — both for those who are power users, and for those who are not and might otherwise easily be put off from using the product.

The crux of the problem has been that Twitter’s DNA is about real-time rivers of chatter that flow in one single feed, while conversations by their nature linger around a specific topic and become hard to follow when there are too many people talking. Trying to build a way to fit the two concepts together has foxed the company for a long time now.

At its best, bringing in a new team from the outside will potentially give Twitter a fresh perspective on how to approach conversations on the platform, and the fact that Lightwell has been thinking about creative ways to present narratives gives them some cred as a group that might come up completely new concepts for presenting conversations.

At a time when it seems that the conversation around Conversations had somewhat stagnated, it’s good to see a new chapter opening up.

Classic Hangouts will hang in there a bit longer

Earlier this year, Google said it would transition all Hangouts users on G Suite to Hangouts Chat and Meet by October 2019 and then retire the classic version of Hangouts. But a lot of G Suite users love their classic Hangouts, so Google has now revised Hangouts’ retirement date to “no sooner than June 2020.” That leaves the door open for a later date, too, and the company says it will provide a “more definitive date” at some point in the future.

It’s worth stressing that this new timline is about Hangouts for paying G Suite users, but it will also influence the consumer timeline. What exactly is happening to Hangouts for consumers remains a bit unclear, though, given that Google’s original consumer messaging strategy failed after the disappointment that was Allo.

But here is what we know: earlier this year, Google said that it wanted to transition consumers over to a free version of Hangouts Chat and Meet after the G Suite transition. A Google spokesperson told me that this plan remains in place and that it will start after the G Suite transition.

As for G Suite users, Google plans to make the transition for G Suite users easier as it looks to move them over to the new platform. Admins can already jump on an accelerated timeline and disable classic Hangouts right now (but they still need an invitation from Google to do so).

Daily Crunch: DoorDash acquires Scotty Labs

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. DoorDash acquires autonomous driving startup Scotty Labs

DoorDash seems to be very interested in self-driving technology — not only did it acquire Scotty Labs (a startup enabling people to remotely control self-driving cars), it also brought on the two co-founders of Lvl5, which was creating high-resolution maps for autonomous driving.

“We’ll share more updates in the near future but for now, we’re really excited to be part of the amazing DoorDash family and looking forward to building something magical together,” Scotty Labs co-founder Tobenna Arodiogbu wrote on in a blog post.

2. Apple, Google and Mozilla block Kazakhstan’s browser spying tactics

Apple, Google and Mozilla have taken the rare step of blocking an untrusted certificate issued by the Kazakhstan government, which critics say it forced its citizens to install as part of an effort to monitor their internet traffic.

3. The 11 best startups from Y Combinator’s S19 Demo Day 1

We already rounded up all the startups that presented at the accelerator’s Demo Day 1, but now the team has selected their favorites. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

4. MoviePass exposed thousands of unencrypted customer card numbers

An unprotected MoviePass database included both customer cards (those are the debit cards used to purchase movie tickets) and personal credit card numbers.

5. Waymo releases a self-driving open data set for free use by the research community

The data set isn’t for commercial use, but Waymo’s definition of “research” is fairly broad, and includes researchers at other companies as well as academics.

6. PayPal-backed money lender Tala raises $110M to enter India

Tala looks at behavioral data gathered through an Android app to build a customer’s credit profile. The new round values the company at $750 million.

7. Join The New Stack for Pancake & Podcast with Q&A at TC Sessions: Enterprise

Popular enterprise news and research site The New Stack is coming to TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise on September 5 for a special Pancake & Podcast session with live Q&A. (And we’re dead serious about the pancakes.)

Google denies reports of unannounced changes to Android app review process

Multiple reports this week claimed Google had quietly rolled out a more in-depth app review process to all developers — changes designed to keep the Play Store safer from spam, malware, and copycat apps. Those reports are inaccurate, Google tells TechCrunch. Instead, the company is giving itself more time to review apps from new, unestablished developers on the Play Store, as previously announced, but this hasn’t been extended to all developers.

Concerns about these so-called “unannounced changes” stemmed from a blog post by Choice of Games, which wrote that “all new apps” would be getting an additional review, slowing down app approvals. It claimed new apps would require at least three days for review, and this now included existing developers.

The post cited a conversation with Google Support as the source for its claims.

This led to a ton of confusion, as the development shop behind the post was well-established, having been on the Play Store since 2010 as would have been exempt from Google’s policy of increased reviews for new developers.

As it turns out, it appears there was miscommunication between Google Play Store developer support and the developer, according to the chat transcript that was published. The support person, “Liz,” was alerting the developer to the new policy Google announced in April, which detailed increased review times for Play Store newcomers. She didn’t appear to understand that she was speaking with a developer who had published on Google Play for nearly a decade.

Android Police also picked up the news, writing that it Google had “quietly instigated a more involved review process that impacts every app and update.”

Reddit and Hacker News also weighed in. In addition to the reported changes, developers were concerned there was now no way to schedule new app releases through the Timed Publishing feature. (That’s also not true — developers can publish to a closed testing track, then used Timed Publishing to go live to the public.)

A Google Developer Relations team member stepped in to clear things up on Reddit, and we’ve confirmed with Google that his responses were accurate.

Google’s updated app review process, first announced in April, hasn’t changed.

At the time, Google said:

“We will soon be taking more time (days, not weeks) to review apps by developers that don’t yet have a track record with us. This will allow us to do more thorough checks before approving apps to go live in the store and will help us make even fewer inaccurate decisions on developer accounts.”

Google began notifying developers directly in the Play Console in June that new apps by developers without a track record will take a couple of days longer to review. Google says that, since this change, it’s already seen a meaningful increase in the number of harmful apps blocked by Play even before they are published.

It’s not clear why the developer relations support person miscommunicated this information to the developer in question, but it points to a training issue on Google’s part.

It’s also unclear why the established developer’s app was held up in app review, beyond it just being a mistake on Google’s part.

Unfortunately for Google, Play Store developers have come to expect a speedy review process so any delays feel like unnecessary friction.

Unlike Apple, which employs a large team to carefully review app submissions and make hard calls on controversial apps, Google has more heavily relied on automation over the years. The company disclosed in the past how it uses software to pre-analyze apps for viruses, malware, and other content and copyright violations.

That process doesn’t always work, though. Only days ago, dozens of Android apps disguised as harmless photo editors and games were discovered to actually be adware. This follows similar news from January, where 85 apps were found to contain adware. And in May, where adware was discovered in some 200 apps totaling 150+ million installs. And, news from last November, where malware was found across over a dozen apps with half a million installs. And so on.

While it would make sense for Google to increase its review of all apps, given its inability to address this problem, that was not the case here.

Bring your posse to Disrupt SF 2019 with group discounts

Disrupt San Francisco 2019, our flagship event on October 2-4, features three full days of programming, more than 10,000 attendees, over 1,200 exhibiting startups and sponsors — and that’s just for starters. That’s a lot of ground to cover. Here’s a hot tip: take advantage of group discounts, saddle up and bring your whole posse to the show and squeeze out every bit of information, inspiration and opportunity possible.

Spread your crew across Disrupt and get more done. Network till you drop in Startup Alley — using CrunchMatch, our free business match-making platform, to find and schedule meetings with only the best connections for your business. Bear witness to our epic pitch competition, Startup Battlefield — a great place to spot investment-worthy companies.

Attend the many Main Stage panel discussions and interviews with tech titans, up-and-coming founders and startup investors. Check out the conference agenda hereLooking for actionable tips and advice? Head for the Extra Crunch Stage. Yeah, you’ll learn a thing or two.

We offer group discounts for every pass level, to make your posse possible. Here’s what you need to know.

Group Innovator Pass: Buy five or more passes and get a 20 percent discount. Need 10 or more passes? Email us for a price quote at events@techcrunch.com. An Innovator Pass grants access to the Main Stage, ExtraCrunch Stage, Q&As, workshops, CrunchMatch, networking receptions and the TechCrunch Events App, which lets you communicate with other attendees.

Group Founder Pass: Buy two or more passes and you’ll get a 10 percent discount. Your Founder Pass gets you the same benefits as an Innovator Pass but at an already discounted rate — but you must be a (co)founder of a company (of any size).

Group Investor Pass: Purchase two or more passes to get a 10 percent discount. An Investor Pass provides the same benefits as an Innovator pass, PLUS access to the Investor Lounge, an invitation to investor-only reception and two hours of private meeting space.

Group Expo Only Pass: If you want to buy Expo Only passes in bulk (10 or more), email events@techcrunch.com for a price quote. An Expo Only Pass provides access to the Startup Alley expo floor, workshops and a lite version of the TechCrunch Events App.

Group Startup Alley Exhibitor Packages: If you’re interested in purchasing more than one Startup Alley Exhibitor Package, then email startupalley@techcrunch.com for more information. This package includes exhibit space for one day, use of the Startup Alley Lounge, access to the media list and two or three Founder Passes, depending on when you book.

Disrupt San Francisco 2019 takes place on October 2-4. Bring your posse and cover more ground, find more opportunity and discover more ways to grow your business. Get your group discounts today. If you’re riding solo, no problemo. Get an early bird ticket and, depending on the pass level you choose, you can save up to $1,300. Saddle up and ride!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt San Francisco 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

MoviePass Customers: Check Your Credit Card Statements for Fraudulent Charges

Image: AP

If you’re a MoviePass customer, you might want to take an extra close look at your credit card statements—or considering replacing your card altogether.

The movie subscription service announced Wednesday that one of its critical servers was not protected with a password. This critical server contained tens of thousands of MoviePass card numbers as well as customer’s personal credit card numbers, Techcrunch reports.

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The protected database was discovered by a security researcher at the Dubai-based cybersecurity firm SpiderSilk and actually contained 161 million records. Most of the records were generated logging messages, but a number of them included sensitive user information as well.

Customer information stored on the server included personal credit card numbers and their expiration date, billing information, and the names and postal addresses of their owners. Some other records showed only the last four digits of card numbers.

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None of the records were encrypted.

MoviePass did not respond to emails from the security researcher about this issue, and after Techcrunch posted its story several other researchers came forward to say they had found the same issue months prior. In other words, this has probably been out there a while. MoviePass took the database offline after being contacted by Techcrunch.

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If you’re a MoviePass customer, that means your credit card information might be out there. On a basic level, it’s a good idea to take a look through your last few months of credit card statements (if you don’t do that regularly already) and make sure you don’t see anything out of the ordinary.

It also might be a good idea to get a replacement card for the one you use for MoviePass. Just because someone hasn’t used your card number yet doesn’t mean they aren’t going to.

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Don’t Download the Latest Fortnite Aimbot—It’s Malware

I’m terrible at Fortnite—so much so that even using some kind of aimbot or other hack to “improve” my matches would probably only make me as decent as a regular Fortnite player. Still, I won’t be trying out any Fortnite hacks I find online, especially the latest “SydneyFortniteHacks.exe,” because it’s more likely to damage your system than your battle royale competitors.

According to a Tuesday post from Cyren researchers, a new Fortnite aimbot is making the rounds—one that promises to give players a perfect way to shoot their peers and a way to see where all players are on the map at any given time. Were this true, you’d undoubtedly risk being banned from Epic’s servers for cheating, but you’re not even going to get that far because the aimbot in question is actually malware in disguise. As Cyren describes:

“We’ve taken a deep dive into the sample reported by Leo to understand how it works, with the step-by-step analysis laid out below, and perhaps most interestingly can report (spoiler alert!) that this Syrk ransomware is in fact Hidden-Cry with a .Syrk extension. The source code for Hidden-Cry is readily available, having been shared on Github at the end of last year.

One principle feature of the Hidden-Cry ransomware is that, as seen in the instructions shown, is the sense of urgency it creates in the victim by deleting files every two hours. However, we believe it is possible for victims to recover deleted files, given the simple method used to delete the files.”

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Said malware—really, ransomware—performs a number of unpleasant tasks when you run it, including disabling Windows Defender/Security and UAC; hiding a file on your system that looks for a bunch of files to encrypt; dropping the malware in your Startup folder so it’s always running when you boot your machine; and setting up a timed deletion of encrypted files in your Pictures, Desktop, and Documents folders.

Oh, and it’ll also infect any USB drives you have connected, too.

If you’ve foolishly installed this aimbot and find yourself butting heads against this pesky ransomware, Cyren notes that regaining access to your files is pretty easy:

“…the main malware also drops the file where you can find the password. It drops the following files:

C:\Users\Default\AppData\Local\Microsoft\-i+.txt -> file containing the randomly generated ID

C:\Users\Default\AppData\Local\Microsoft\-pw+.txt -> file containing the password

C:\Users\Default\AppData\Local\Microsoft\+dp-.txt -> file contains ID and password. This will be sent to an email address.”

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Decrypt the files, and a special delete.exe program will run to remove the ransomware from your system. At that point, though, I’d probably trust your virus and malware scanner more than the ransomware itself. Make sure your apps are updated, reboot into Safe Mode, and run full scans of your system using both apps.

Also, stop downloading and installing Fortnite hacks. The risks aren’t worth the meager rewards (no matter how many chicken dinners you win.)

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These Cordless Yard Tools Are Dirt Cheap, And Ready For Fall

Best Home DealsThe best home, kitchen, smart home, and automotive deals from around the web, updated daily.   

It’s 2019, and your lawn tools don’t need to run on gas anymore. Worx’s eBay storefront is currently blowing out a couple of 20V cordless tool bundles, with an extra 15% off at checkout.

For $67, you can get a cordless blower, a trimmer and edger, plus a couple of batteries. Or, for $42, you can forego the blower. But with fall right around the corner (I know it doesn’t feel like it, but I swear it’s true!), why would you?