Rampant Online Ad Fraud and Bot Activity

Ad fraud software in action. Target website, randomized referrers, browser agents and proxy IP addresses. That is enough to spoof anti-bot software.

Ad fraud software in action. Target website, randomized referrers, browser agents and proxy IP addresses. That is enough to spoof anti-bot software.

It is no secret that I battle and ban bad bots on my site. If a bot is not a well known search engine or provides me some type of service then I usually ban it. Sure it can visit my site, but it will receive a blank page. But why do they visit? Who is paying them? Welcome to the world of Online Ad Fraud.

Bots are such a huge problem that left unchecked, can overwhelm your webstats, Google Analytics and possibly your server. What is a bot writer’s end game? Why are they visiting my site every day? Why do they continue to scrape my content and download my images? Usually I find there is money to be made. My theory is that companies are selling online ads to millions of sites. Customer companies pay for online ads to millions of sites, but what they receive are automated bots visiting these sites and mechanically clicking their ads. Very few actual humans see these ads. This is the crux of online ad fraud.

Original article, Slides, NYT

Most sites do not have much anti-bot filtering. In fact the concept is quite difficult to implement. Bot writers are smart and change tactics. The world is large and bots can originate from any country anywhere. Further, bots are acting more like humans, making them harder to detect

Ad fraud software in action. Target website, randomized referrers, browser agents and proxy IP addresses. That is enough to spoof anti-bot software.

Ad fraud software in action. Target website, randomized referrers, browser agents and proxy IP addresses. That is enough to spoof anti-bot software.

This animated image below might be ad-blocked. To see it turn off your ad blocker

Ad fraud software in action. Target website, randomized referrers, browser agents and proxy IP addresses. That is enough to spoof anti-bot software.

This animated image above might be ad-blocked. To see it turn off your ad blocker

One of the biggest reasons fraud is so rampant is simply that it’s not illegal. Unlike credit card fraud, nobody is going to jail for ad fraud, and it’s not exactly the sort of activity that elicits a crackdown from law enforcement, which means there is significantly less risk involved. And yet it’s extremely lucrative.

Imagine a bad actor is weighing their options. On one hand there is credit card fraud, which has modest rewards and very high risks. On the other is ad fraud, which is very lucrative and very low risk. It’s a no-brainer…

Ad tech players and even agencies make just as much revenue from fraudulent impressions as from legitimate ones. As a result, there is no urgency to fight against fraud.

In summary, marketers buy online ads. Agencies gather thousands of sites and promise that human eyes will see these ads. Bots are used to artificially and fraudulently inflate site visits and take a cut of this ad income. No wonder there are so many bad bots around. Bot operators are getting paid handsomely without any legal risk or direct repercussions.

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