Digital advertisers losing the 'bot arms race'

A screenshot from Buzzfeed.

Cyber-crime is a serious threat to anyone who does businesss on the internet. Some of the biggest heists have involved credit card data and banking information.

But that is changing.

Criminal rings have found a new target, one that is turning out to be very lucrative and less risky than bank and credit card fraud: digital ad fraud. Researchers believe that more than one third of all internet traffic is from bots--software programs, and not actual humans. And all those fake eyeballs are wreaking havoc on the $50 billion digital ad market.

Let's say you are a big box retail store. To get people into your store you place thousands of online ads on thousands of websites. Some of those websites are very secure, but others are set up to generate ad views from bots. So you, the retailer, keep a list of the sites that are viewed by humans and those that could be overrun by bots.

"The problem is those lists are not updated frequently enough," says Dr. Augustine Fou, a marketing science consultant. We are in the midst of what he calls a bot arms race. The good guys can detect bots, maybe by noticing that the bot doesn't move the mouse like a human. But then, the bots get more sophisticated, they learn to move a mouse like a person would. "Once the good guys detect that kind of stuff," Fou says, " then the bad guys now add the next level and they can now simulate those things."

Fou says that between 30 and 60 percent of all display ad views are fraudulent--meaning they're on websites being viewed by bots.

Several companies have tried to recoup ad spending when they discovered their ads weren't seen by humans. They are also turning to companies like White Ops.

"Whenever a page is loaded on the web, we determine in real time whether it was viewed by a human or a bot," says *Tamar Hassan, the chief technical officer of White Ops.

He says criminals are increasingly turning to digital ad fraud because it can be more profitable than good old-fashioned credit card fraud. "Now, the price is around 25 cents a credit card, and you still have to get away with the fraud," Hassan says. Not only that, "when you do, somebody is actually chasing you because the money is missing."

But in advertising the money is just as good if not better than credit card fraud. And no one is chasing you because the money isn't missing. It's the human eyeballs that are nowhere to be found.


*CORRECTION: The original article misidentified an executive with White Ops. He is Tamar Hassan, the company’s chief technical officer. The text has been corrected.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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