Transformers: fraud bots in disguise

Transformers: fraud bots in disguise

Online ad fraud is getting smarter, bots are evolving to mimic humans and agencies are bidding for fake and unsafe ad space. So why is the industry burying its head in the sand? asks Marco Ricci, CEO of Adloox.

This is getting a little embarrassing. I recently read the following sound bite on digital fraud from the IAB’s Traffic of Good Intent Task Force: “The ad community is making some effort to deal with this problem…this is a good start.”

A good start? Are you insane?

Only a few months ago we were led to believe sticking a picture of an eyeball ‘watching’ over digital campaigns was enough to tackle the issue of viewability. Digital buyers across the entire ecosystem then put their verification feet up, assured that the problem was being addressed.

It’s being dealt with, we were told. The IAB, MRC and ABC are on it.

Then, in just the past few months, there has been a trend amongst the planner and buyer glitterati to discuss ‘malware’, ‘bots’ and ‘iframe-nested bad actors’. Everyone has been talking about it – and herein lies the problem.

Whilst everyone is comfortably sitting at their RTB desks, blissfully assured that the automated ‘bad actor’ reports they get sent through from their preferred verification tool every week covers all aspects of brand safety and viewability, the ‘actors’ are evolving.

Fraud is getting smarter. Now we’ve started hearing about phantom bots, cyclops and decepti-bots; the latter being able to mimic a human’s intentions, such as an interest in a specific brand of car.

Is it me, or has ad fraud evolved to coincide with the release of the latest Transformers movie?

Fake ‘robot’ ads are being targeted to a particular niche – resulting in a higher CPM than untargeted ads, thus deceiving advertisers into believing they are receiving valuable, targeted clicks.

The reality, however, is everyone’s computer becomes a breeding ground for fraud. Fake sites inject their virus eggs on to user IPs via false installation apps and fake ads. The malware hatches, the virus is born, and your computer becomes a ‘botnet’.

Coherently, the fake sites maraud themselves on the DSPs and RTB marketplace, claiming to have a good, unique audience. Then when this audience is unknowingly bought by the ATDs to target for their brands, the bad actors turn the screw.

Whilst you’re surfing the web, ‘your’ botnet is already navigating around the fake sites, racking up the impressions, mimicking the behaviour of a premium user, and the fake sites are being paid by the marketplace exchanges every time their DSP audience is chosen and the impression is said to have delivered.

Very clever isn’t it?

RTB, according to eMarketer, now accounts for 22% of all display ad spending and grew 76.5% last year. In three years it will be worth $12 billion and account for one third of all display. And yet forecasters suggest ad fraud could cost marketers as much as $11 billion in 2014, a 22% increase over 2013.

Fraudulent bad actors rejoice; RTB display advertising continues to grow rapidly – and, amusingly, fraud is worth about the same amount.

ComScore once estimated that non-human traffic represented 36% of all web traffic in 2012. But Scott Cunningham, IAB’s VP technology, claims that “when we talk about fraud, other issues such as viewability often work their way into conversation, and that can confuse the matter.” He goes onto say: “the industry would benefit from taking a non-alarmist approach to the problem.”


Worth mentioning that the IAB represents the very ad sellers that could be left with financial egg on their faces if these fraud allegations surface. Just look at RocketFuel, who say they “take an aggressive posture to screen bots out of the ad space.”

Another interesting statement comes from Andrew Casale, VP of Casale Media, who claims the open exchange market is “rife with problems”, adding, “I would sign my name next to 50% fraudulent traffic in open ad exchanges.”

Scott Knoll of Integral Ad Science believes it’s all a bit exaggerated claiming the only way you’ll see close to 50% fraud is if “you’re looking at a suspect area”.

Who to believe then?

And if Mr Knoll’s statement was true, does that make wasting 30%-40% of spend to fraud acceptable? Surely the aim is to have a fraud-free marketplace, so that buyers maintain a sense of renewed confidence.

So what’s the answer? And how do we tackle these fraudulent ‘Decepticons’, able to so effectively mimic something they are not?

A lot of ad verification companies and trading desks claim to know where the ad appears by analysing the URL. They find a premium domain somewhere in the referrer and they are happy with it. To be fair, this trick worked two years ago but it is definitely not true today.

Nowadays, three out of every four large publishers will declare well-known and easily recognised domains in their iframes – such as YouTube, AOL or more recently the MailOnline – and dynamically change this name every day, to escape capture.

You think you know where you are but you don’t. You can’t claim you are doing ad verification if you think your pixel is enough. Ad verification is not only about tracking the ad, it is about deeper-level investigation by forensics teams and anti-fraud bots.

It’s this measured approach concentrating below the ground level that will allow ATDs to quite literally weed out the root causes of inefficiency, and work transparently with their audience sellers.

Some brand safety companies are still claiming to have to block over 15% of ad campaigns. This could be because they are painting whole publishers with the blacklist brush, brandishing the entire media owner (and its site portfolio) as ineffective, whereas the real offenders are lurking much deeper – site referrer domains masquerading as ‘premium audience’ on DSPs and exchanges.

Until these guys are caught, measured and then removed from seller inventory, the level of firewall ad blocking will remain high, suppliers will continue to claim innocence and, at the end of the funnel, agencies can’t showcase the proof and value of brand safety to their clients.

I’m being fully transparent with my own clients, offering fraud investigation audits at the most granular level. We offer recommendations and optimisation every step of the way. This is the only way the agencies and their chosen media owners can stay on top of their audience.

It would appear, that without complete transparency, you’re left with a vicious cycle where the only real beneficiaries are the fraud Transformers, constantly escaping capture, and releasing bigger and brasher sequels.

Oh, and in case you’re interested, the latest Transformers movie is out this week, ironically entitled Transformers: Age of Extinction.

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