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PHOTO: Lindsay Henwood

Digital media fraud is nothing new but it is becoming endemic and impossible to manage.

Billions of dollars are being made by fraudsters who sell ads that are never seen by humans. 

According to the World Federation of Advertisers, fraudulent internet traffic schemes are becoming the second-largest market for criminal organizations — trailing only cocaine and opiate trafficking.

Keeping Ad Traffic Clean

Ad fraud is a complex problem whose solution involves not only technology but also a formal methodology for detection, communication and corrective measures.

Since fraudsters continuously innovate and create new schemes, there needs to be a continuous process put in place to keep ad traffic clean. Ideally this process should be conducted by an objective third party that has the needed level of expertise similar to those organizations that analyze a company’s ability to defend itself against data breaches. .

Here is a five step approach to detection and taking corrective action that can be performed repeatedly to provide a comprehensive method to protect advertisers’ budgets and weed out fake ad traffic.

1. Build a Sample

For health inspections, monitoring everything all the time is costly and inefficient. If done correctly, sampling can achieve nearly as good results at a fraction of the price.

The same principle applies to busting ad fraud. The first step is to define the sample size that is appropriate for each traffic source based on certain characteristics. Companies can save a great deal of time and resources by analyzing in depth only a portion of all ad traffic.

2. Analyze Traffic

Fraudsters go out of their way to disguise their activity to avoid detection. However after an in-depth analysis it can be discovered that they have left behind digital footprints that can give themselves away.

By doing a deep inspection of traffic you can identify the source of clusters of false traffic instead of just identifying and blocking one site at a time. Many crime rings create thousands of fraudulent sites and sources calculating that even if some are discovered they can still make a significant amount of money for the ones that remain hidden.

3. Create Actionable Data

To solve the problem and take back control of on-line ad traffic there needs to be detailed information about the fraudulent sources.

Problematic sources should be categorized and certain common characteristics tracked and reported. If more is known about the sources of bad traffic than more effective corrective action can be taken.

A better description of problematic traffic can make the difference between eliminating a publisher all together, and keeping the publisher by weeding out the bad traffic and keeping the good.

4. Negotiate with Traffic Sources

Publishers, agencies and exchanges are open to being advised about bad sources of traffic so they can keep their credibility and advertisers’ trust.

When there has been a thorough investigation with precise detailed findings, this information should be presented to all the players as part of a collaborative process to define the next steps to provide the highest quality ad traffic possible. In my experience, when there are facts that are presented everyone is happy to work together to find a solution.

5. Take Corrective Action

A solution could involve everything from receiving restitution for payment for fake traffic, to simply adjusting ad serving policies to reach the target audience more effectively.

All the players in the process need to be aware that this is a reiterative process, and whatever steps are taken will result in regular investigations to make sure that bad traffic doesn’t seep back in.

Points to Remember

Busting online ad fraud, like any other process, is an activity that improves by learning from the past.

Using scientific processes such as reverse engineering and simulating specific scenarios enables a better understanding of criminal behavior.

Disciplined approaches to defining, describing, and then dealing with online ad fraud is our best chance of minimizing its impact and bringing back trust to online advertising.