What Is Ad Fraud?

Also known as ‘click fraud’ and ‘PPC fraud’, ad fraud can amount to any number of things, but generally speaking refers to the practice of creating a falsified advertisement to either attract unknowing consumers, or to fraudulently add traffic with the help of ‘bots’ – artificial intelligence software designed to automatically carry out designated functions online. 

What Is Ad Fraud

But to know the ins and outs of ad fraud, we need to look a little closer at how it takes place, the intended endgame. 

Ad Fraud: How Does It Work? 

Generally speaking, ad fraud involves the use of banner ads, video ads, and in-app ads, but the term refers to all kinds of online advertising fraud. 

The Process

The process tends to involve the scammer faking a famous brand to get traffic by people clicking on the site.

This traffic is also usually reinforced with bots, which automatically operate fake online accounts and profiles to bolster the amount of traffic, or ‘clicks’, the fake advertisement gets, thus increasing its online popularity and presence, and thus earning revenue for the scammers. 

This tends to be a sophisticated combination of identity fraud and attribution fraud, and despite the process itself seeming relatively simple, there are a lot of moving parts in place to make it work effectively. 

The Purpose

Ultimately, ad fraud is an attempt to defraud digital advertising networks for the purpose of financial gain for the scammers. 

They use various methods to trick advertisers and ad networks into paying them for their ‘services’, even though they are in fact offering nothing, are using falsified information, and are bolstering their popularity with bots they control. 

Types Of Ad Fraud

Along with the above mentioned process, there are various methods that are employed by scammers to make a quick buck from ad networks and advertisers. 

Hidden Ads

This is when an ad is shown in a way that the user cannot actually tell what is being advertised, or where it is distorted, blank, ‘loading’, or otherwise illegible. 

This is based on systems where ad networks pay advertisers for views – i.e. a visitor to the site seeing the ‘ad’ on their page – instead of clicks.

This means that even though the visitor to the site is confronted with essentially nothing, or sometimes a blank screen, the scammer is still getting paid as the ad network considers it a view all the same. 

Click Hijacking

This is when a scammer redirects a click on one advertisement – be it legitimate or not – to their own ad, thus stealing the ‘click’ by changing what the clicker was intending to look at. 

For this to work properly, the scammer has to hack the user’s computer, the website owner’s home system, or a proxy server, which can then allow them to have access to what is shown, and where a user’s click will direct them. 

Fake App Installation

These ads are often shown with applications, in particular smartphone apps, and for this scam to work, groups of people – often in collectives known colloquially as ‘click farms’ – download the app and view the ad countless times. 

This increases the amount of times the fake ad is viewed, thus generating revenue for the scammers. 

Botnet Ad Fraud

Botnets can be used by scammers to generate thousands of fake clicks on advertisements, as well as providing falsified visits to a specific website, thus generating an incorrect level of traffic, and wrongly earning the scammers more revenue from ad networks. 

What Are Bots & How Are They Used?

Bots, or ‘click bots’ are designed to imitate normal users, and to mimic the browsing patterns of human beings to provide traffic and ‘clicks’ to specific websites and advertisements owned by the scammers. 

What Is Ad Fraud (1)

These are often dispersed across multiple devices and platforms, and are controlled via ‘botnets’, giving the individual bots the appearance of legitimacy, as each one has an individual IP address, and thus a sense of online individuality should they be investigated by ad networks or advertisers. 

A ‘botnet’ is generally considered to be a collection of interlinked devices that have been compromised by an external attacker or scammer, and essentially assimilated into their own system under their control.

Ad & Click Fraud: The Difference

When it comes down to it, there are actually very few differences between the two practices, in fact ad fraud is often considered a specific form of click fraud – which in itself is a relatively vague term that is used within the industry. 

While ad fraud is specifically targeted to advertisements, click fraud can involve any kind of practice aimed at scoring fake clicks, and often uses sophisticated techniques – such as bots and click farms – to achieve its aims. 

How Can Ad Fraud Be Prevented? 

By and large, ad fraud is prevented through the use of bot management and detection software. 

These pieces of software can use machine learning to observe and detect the behavior of a user, comparing them to an established baseline of ‘general users’. 

This can often detect behavior which seems random, strange, or erratic, and flag up alerts for the owner of the website (or ad) to suggest that something might be wrong. 

This can also filter out malicious bot activity, allowing real human users and ‘good bots’ to continue to operate freely within the system. 

There are also various pieces of software out there designed for smaller businesses, boosting their power and visibility, while highlighting malicious or predatory bots.

This can prove greatly beneficial, and stop vulnerable users from being taken advantage of by sophisticated, unscrupulous scammers. 

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, everything you need to know about ad fraud, the purpose behind it, and what scammers hope to gain. 

If you suspect you might be a victim of ad fraud, the best thing you can do is to contact the domain registrar, who can provide advice for how to move forward.

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