While most website owners struggle honestly to earn more from online advertising, there are cyber fraudsters that employ illegal techniques to make huge profits. This article discusses what are online advertising frauds and click frauds – and also touches upon related issues of click bombing and invalid clicks and how to try and protect yourself against such malicious activities.
First, let’s see how “Pay Per Click” ad method actually works and then talk about how the criminals make use of the system to make big money.
How Does Pay Per Click Work
Pay Per Click (PPC) ads have a set method of working, and they pay well if a user clicks on the ads. Then there are impression based ads, like the one’s which TribalFusion displays, which pay by the number of times the ad gets displayed. Google AdSense is a perfect example of a Pay Per Click model. You, as the creator of content, display Google adverts on your websites. If you are using YouTube to display videos created by your own self, you can use AdSense there too, to display ads. When people who visit your website or watch your videos click on the ads, you are paid a certain amount per click. Thus, if you have a good number of visitors coming to your website or if a great many people watch your videos, you make some money.
Online advertising companies check out the keywords that a user types to reach your website or video content. They then display ads relevant to the keywords typed by the users. As advertising companies, they assume that all impressions are shown to real people, that is, human users.
Online Advertisement Frauds and Click Frauds
As an advertiser, you invest money in displaying ads on different websites and videos using Google AdWords or any other online advertisement companies. It is natural that you expect that all the money you spend will go towards showing the ad impressions to humans – real people, and not the BOTs.
However, since most of the methods of showing ads by the advertising companies are automated, they do not distinguish a real human from a click bot. That means a considerable amount of your money may get wasted in showing ads to unreal people – the click bots. Some criminals or people hire low-wage workers from freelance marketplaces to use “given” search terms to reach their website or videos. These low-wage workers then click the ads appearing on the websites and videos. This is used to beat down a competitors website and his advertising account.
Click BOTs are small programs that use “pre-fed search terms” to have the ads displayed on a fake website and click on the ads there so that the fake website owner makes a good amount of money. Click Fraud is the term to use here. A criminal will set up a fake website and get AdSense or other companies to display ads on the websites. When you invest money into advertisements, they (the advertisements companies) show your ads on these bogus websites due to search terms used by click bots or very low wage workers to reach the fake websites. Not only that, they then click on the ads to make money for the website owner.
In another method, website owners create smaller ads of like 3×3 pixels and present many of them all over the websites. You, as a user, will certainly make mistakes by clicking the ultra-small adverts as you think you are clicking on something else but end up clicking on these small, almost invisible ad impressions. This method is too popular and is not getting old as most companies now offer standard, pre-defined ad sizes. Still, the criminals exploit the ad codes and make them small enough to place on buttons or other text on the websites so that you “accidentally” click on the ads instead of clicking on something else.
In short, click frauds are online advertising frauds employed by cyber criminals to make money out of your advertising budgets. While you think your advertising money is being spent on real humans, a good amount of money is wasted on showing ad impressions to deliberate searches by click bots and very low wage workers who use certain search terms to reach the fake website and click on the ads.
A study from ANA, in which online ad purchases by 36 major U.S. brands were tracked between August and September 2014, found that 11% of online display ads and 23% of video ads aren’t actually displayed to real people. And it’s estimated that advertisers could lose more than $6 billion globally to ad fraud in 2015.
$6 billion is a huge amount and considering that poor advertisers would lose that amount of amount, there should be something in place to prevent click bots if not the low wage workers (as these are real humans though not interested in your products but only in clicking ads to make money for their masters/clients).
Read: What is a Clickjacking attack.
Can Click Frauds Be Prevented
Not really – not with the current way of handling online advertisements. But some companies run automated scripts from time to time to figure out fake websites and fake clicks. If detected, the fake websites are blacklisted, and ads are not shown on those sites. But as soon as a website is blacklisted, the criminals can take down the website and create a new website. While some advertising companies, like Google, have strict selection methods for new websites, others just allow anyone to set up advertisement codes. But if a criminal can create a bot to click or display ads on a website, she or he can easily set up bots to show that the new (fake) websites is getting a good amount of traffic and thus convinces ad companies to display ads on the new (fake) websites.
So on the one hand, some fraudsters can perpetrate click frauds to make money online by cheating the advertisers, there is yet another set of unscrupulous people who will target a competitor’s website and click bomb it with a view to getting his account suspended.
Click bombing is a form of a cyber attack where a user may with malicious intent click on your ad, say 100 times. Some even go steps further and employ BOTs and BOTNETs to engage in click-bombing.
But ad publishers like Google have taken this issue very seriously and have some great techniques in place to detect such activities. They can immediately detect such invalid clicks, and they just ignore them while computing your payments. So in a way, this protects the website owners to a large extent.
Invalid click activity consists of any clicks or impressions that may artificially inflate an advertiser’s costs or a publisher’s earnings, and for which we decide not to charge the advertiser. This includes, but is not limited to, clicks or impressions generated by a publisher clicking on his own ads, a publisher encouraging clicks on his ads, automated clicking tools or traffic sources, robots, or other deceptive software. If you think you have been a victim of invalid clicks, you can report them to Google here. Most advertising companies have such forms to report such activities.
Prevention & Protection from click bombing
If Google detects a large number of Invalid Clicks on your website, they will bring it to your notice. Keep an eye on the CTR or Click Through Rate. See the list country-wise. If you think you are a victim, go through your Google Analytics and server logs and black out the IP address or a country-IP temporarily.
ClickBomb Defense is a WordPress Plugin that promise to help defend your WordPress site against Click Bomb attacks, by monitoring each visitor’s activity on your website. When they reach the maximum number of clicks (which you specify in the settings area) the AdSense ads are disabled, and if you have chosen an alternative ad, that ad is displayed. AdSense Click-Fraud Monitoring is yet another plugin available for WordPress sites. Who Sees Ads is, another WordPress plugin, lets only defines visitors who can see your ads. So if you set it to show your ads to only organic visitors, then only people who visit your site from search engines will see the ads – which in any case is the paying traffic.
Using a web firewall like Sucuri or CloudFlare can also help mitigate this problem in a large way, as it can stop BOT traffic. It even lets you easily control which IP or bunch of IPs or country-IPs to block.
Inputs and observations are most welcome.