Ad fraud bonanza

By Mark Dobson | 12 Dec 2018

If someone said to you that there are people all over the world stealing millions of pounds through ad fraud, you may tell them that they’re crazy. But alas, this is the reality faced by the digital advertising world on a daily basis. In 2018, the global digital ad industry was worth more than $250 billion and ad fraud is one of the world’s most lucrative yet low risk forms of criminality today.

The rise of ad fraud


The reason ad fraud is so rife is largely down to the fact that the systems used to buy and sell ads are incredibly complex, making it very difficult to pin criminals down and charge them. Over the course of the last year, the FBI has estimated that $19 billion has been stolen by these fraudsters – much more than any bank robbery or jewellery heist could manage.

In response to this, the FBI has brought together some of the finest cybersecurity experts and computer geniuses in the country in an attempt to pull together a plan on how take down the bad guys. Think the A Team of the cyber protection world, but with fewer explosives and more paperwork. Interviews with members of the team described the problem of ad fraud as a “very complex, ever-shifting maze”, and “a multiheaded beast”.

Last week, off the back of the cybersecurity team’s efforts, the Department of Justice announced that eight people had been arrested in connection to committing ad fraud at an unprecedented level. The gang were able to steal millions of dollars by using “sophisticated computer programming and infrastructure around the world to exploit the digital advertising industry through fraud”.

Unravelling the severity of it all


The FBI were able to seize several Swiss bank accounts, more than 30 web domains, and information from over 80 servers that all showed the group’s illegal activity over the last few years. At its peak, the group were able to infect 1.7 million PCs – that could go on to generate a volcanic amount of fake traffic. They also went on to create a further 5,000 counterfeit websites which could impersonate top publishers to host ads from top brands all over the world. Could this be the plot for the next Ocean’s film? I’m not so sure.

Within our display team, we follow the toughest ad fraud measures possible to ensure that our clients’ images are safe, and not appearing against content that’s negative – even if this comes at a cost to us.

What’s clear is that ad fraud won’t be going away anytime soon, but it looks as if, finally, after years of avoiding detection and causing mischief, the veil is finally being pulled back on these underworld mobsters, and justice is beginning to be served.

Insights: What can we learn from this?


  • Testing matters! Facebook recently ran a number of tests that looked at how people reacted to different ads via a split test. What it found, from the 20,000+ tests, was that the media average difference between the winning set and losing set was 24% in cost per ad. As digital advertisers, we need to learn how to incorporate testing into our creative strategy as much as possible.


  • Ad fraud is still in a very fragile place. This year, Google has put a lot of money towards tackling “bad ads”, and has dedicated thousands of people to work on removing such ads. Google blocked 3.2 billion ads in 2017, up from a meagre 700 million in 2015. It’s great to see big tech giants, such as Google, tackle these issues head on.