10 October 2019
Mobile ad fraud is an issue for everyone working in the programmatic industry, and it’s clear that there is an overwhelming tide of parties committing it.
Many sources suggest that 40% of a typical advertising investment ends up being fraudulent. Within this, global loss to mobile-based ad fraud is estimated to make up almost half of total digital ad fraud.
While there are some examples of ad fraudsters being fined or even jailed, more needs to be done to disincentivise and provide harsher penalties to those parties found to be committing ad fraud, including occurrences both in mobile apps and mobile ad networks.
Despite the sheer scale of the problem, we are better than we used to be. A range of new fraud detection technologies, collaborations and initiatives among mobile marketers and tech providers have sprung up, and new anti-fraud measures have become increasingly effective for certain types of fraud. However, while the technology providers are trying to build tools to combat mobile ad fraud, the fraudsters remain incentivised to keep looking for new ways to cheat the system.
Ad fraud in the news
Certain advertisers in the App world have already issued lawsuits and gone public with various networks’ malpractice. This has provided much needed exposure in the trade and mainstream media around several recent high profile cases from various big brands.
Earlier this year Uber sued a handful of ad networks in two different lawsuits for wasting many millions of dollars on poor quality and fraudulent ads, for example. Users who viewed these ads experienced pop-ups and auto-redirects in order for networks to gain credit for app installs. The company went on to name and shame those purchasing these ads by name in the most public way possible.
The Uber case followed not far on from an earlier investigation by Buzfeed that uncovered an elaborate ad fraud scheme involving over a hundred Android apps. In this case, user behaviour was tracked by WePurchaseApps to allow fraudsters to mimic user behaviour with bots, which were then used to generate advertising income of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Such high profile cases have become increasingly common this year, with Oracle’s exposure of the app-based fraud operation DrainerBot serving yet another example of a fraudster using infected code on Android devices to deliver fraudulent, invisible video ads.
The many faces of ad fraud
Alongside the potential for monetary loss, what these cases also demonstrate is the many different types of mobile ad fraud. The most amongst many other forms are currently:
- Hidden ads – serve ads in a way that they are not seen by the user, but still get counted as impressions
- Fake user locations – make up user geo position coordinates in order to have more campaigns bidding for its traffic
- Click spamming – generate fake clicks in order to get the measurement platform to attribute installs to those clicks
- Auto-redirects – automatically redirect a user to a page to increase the number of conversions (by counting impressions as clicks), download malware, access private data, etc.
- Fake app installs – falsify apps installs so the fraudster gets paid for it
- Click injection – through the use of a junk app installed in the user device, fraudsters know when a user is installing a new app, and trigger a click right before the user opens it, to get credit from the measurement platform for that install
- Fingerprinting abuse – profit intentionally from an attribution technique that is not very reliable and has a higher chance of error to distort results and show better conversion rates
In general, a lot of these fraudulent practices intended to take advantage of the attribution methodology to give the fake impression of good campaign performance are know as Attribution Fraud.
The battles so far
So, given the scale of the problem and the potential cost to advertisers and the industry as a whole, what’s being done to prevent it?
There’s a clear rise in transparency about the challenge, that may have been driven by increased recognition of the problem and the various high profile cases including those outlined earlier. This recognition has been a crucial first step in addressing it.
At the same time, a generation of educational content and advice has been created that has stimulated consciousness around fraud and how to fight it.
Continued work by non-profits, such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) alongside other key influencers has also raised broader recognition of the impact on the industry. In line with this, both private sector and technology solutions have also come about that have played a significant part in the battles and the war itself.
While a growing range of anti-fraud solutions have been produced to tackle and identify fraudulent practices, not a single one has so far brought fraud to an end in itself, however.
Ultimately, the solution lies in the hands of the advertiser. The advertiser can gain the control it needs in order to minimize the chances of being tricked. This often requires a combination of solutions, including ad serving, antifraud detection and methodology to measure incremental value as some of many examples.
Winning the war
So, what more needs to be done and what do we want to see happen to combat mobile ad fraud completely?
Firstly, it’s clear that strong penalties are needed from industry trade bodies and relevant authorities for those found committing mobile ad fraud – and these need to be publicised widely with the consequences made clear to anyone considering profiting in this way.
Where fraud has been identified at scale it should be made public in the most exposed way possible. Conversely, there’s also strong scope for a mechanism for the independent verification of processes in the mobile ad trading ecosystem.
At the same time best practice should also be widely publicised to minimise the potential risk to revenue and encourage trust and transparency in digital advertising. This can be achieved by minimising links in the value chain and avoiding intermediaries as one of many best practice examples.
Again, much of the onus lies with advertisers themselves, in terms of using technology to fight the problem, and there are also numerous other ways for them to take control. These include:
- Setting clear objectives for media campaigns that focus on the measurement of incremental ROI, as absolute ROI that is not incremental is easy to “fake” using attribution fraud and tactics such as click injection, click spamming or fake ad
- Identifying and implementing an independent third party technology to serve your ads or measure viewability and optimise towards the advertiser’s campaign goals. Making sure your ads are actually seen should be the first step in any advertising campaign
- Where you can’t do your own ad serving, monitoring 100% of supply tracking – not only clicks, but impressions
- Contractually clarifying measurement to be used and financial penalties if campaigns are impacted by fraud. Where possible, use incremental metrics as goal KPIs
While the problem has exploded so has recognition of it and an understanding of how to address it. It’s clear that several elements are in place to fight the various battles. With a further push from both technology, the governing bodies and advertisers themselves, we’re moving in the right direction to finally winning the war.
We recently launched an ad fraud manifesto to highlight the issue and the avenues to tackling it. You can sign up for it by visiting here.
United… we’ll get there soon.