Another day, another ad fraud scheme. This is the digital world we live in now. As our technology and targeted advertising become more sophisticated, so also do the methods for exploiting those systems. It’s more important than ever for advertisers to shed any naivete and be proactive in monitoring and protecting their brands.
The latest scheme involves using pornographic activity to generate massive amounts of fake traffic and ad impressions on a (seemingly) legitimate site. And, because the traffic is originating from an actual human and not a ‘bot,’ most verification services are not flagging this activity as fraudulent. BuzzFeed News, along with 3rd party monitoring service DoubleVerify and ad fraud researcher Augustine Fou, reported on this phenomenon.
So how does it work? A user goes to a porn site and clicks anywhere on the page. This triggers a pop-under window invisible behind the main browser tab. While the user is happily, obliviously watching porn in the main window, the hidden window is constantly loading “different websites at timed intervals, racking up views and ad impressions,” (Craig Silverman, “How to create web traffic out of thin air,” Buzzfeed News). Fou calls this “Bot-Free Traffic Origination Redirect Networks.” Redirecting traffic to a network of websites can generate millions of traffic visits and obscures the origins of the traffic. Jerome Segura, a malware intelligence analyst for Malwarebyes, says “the point of redirects is to launder the traffic so that by the time it hits the page you can’t tell it came from porn.” Additionally, since this traffic wasn’t generated through bots, verification companies cannot tell this is fraudulent activity. Reporting on this is mainly viewed as referral traffic.
BuzzFeed News detailed how the e-sports streaming site, DingIt.tv, used this technique. A network of 80+ sites began sending traffic to DingIt last year, 74 of which registered their domains on the exact same day. These sites all look the same with similar designs and e-sports content. They are low quality and are not intended for actual human interaction. These sites exist purely to share and redirect traffic back and forth. Traffic pattern data from Alexa and SimilarWeb back up this theory – their patterns are identical. These sites generate traffic based on the porn pop-under windows. “The combination of pop-under traffic and the redirect network ensures that by the time the traffic makes its way to DingIt it appears to analytics software and, most importantly, to verification companies as human traffic coming from e-sports sites,” (Silverman). Despite initially explaining that DingIt analyzes its traffic to ensure high quality, Adam Simmons, DingIt VP of Content and Marketing, ceased communications with BuzzFeed News when presented with information connecting the company to the network of fraudulent sites.
There are a few companies who are trying to counteract this problem. Google has upgraded its AdSense display ad network policy to ban the use of any of these pop-under or redirect techniques. Trustworthy Accountability Group, an ad industry initiative to fight fraud, requires publishers to disclose the percentages of sourced traffic and where that traffic comes from. TAG’s CEO, Mike Zaneis, says, “This new level of transparency allows buyers to know if the traffic should be suspect or potentially unsafe for their brand.” Of course, this level of disclosure is not as prevalent in the industry as it should be.
Digital ad fraud is only getting more sophisticated and fraudsters will continue to find new ways to scheme the system. However, there are some steps you can take to defend your brand safety. Make sure that your tracking partner is certified in detecting sophisticated invalid traffic. Routinely monitor your site lists and make note of any suspicious websites or traffic patterns that you see, while keeping an updated blacklist. Verification services are still figuring out the best ways to detect all fraudulent activity but it’s imperative that your brand takes all the steps it can to protect itself.
If you would like to learn more about this subject in the United States or globally please get in touch with Joanna Kaufman at +1 (303) 763 8293.