How camouflaged ad fraudsters try to rob you off your marketing budget

Author: Steffen Meyer, Mobile Marketing Content Specialist

Ad fraud is a serious problem for app publishers, and criminals steadily come up with new ways to rob you of your advertising budget and skew your statistics. 

We already covered the most common tricks by these criminals and how to combat them but now the HUMAN’s Satori Threat Intelligence & Research team discovered more advanced techniques, employed in 75+ apps in the Google Playstore and 10+ apps in Apple’s App Store. 

In cooperation with the companies, these fraudulent apps were removed. However, criminals will most probably issue new apps or build upon these tactics to develop new methods, as they did in the past. 

It is vital for marketers to be aware of these methods to counteract and protect budgets. So here’s a quick overview to understand the new fraud techniques:

1. Impostor Apps

Some apps are worth more to advertising networks than others because they are popular or have a high standing. Using this fact, fraudulent apps fake the so-called Bundle or Apple ID, pretending to be a totally different app.

An investigation unearthed that many apps disguise themselves as Connected TV (CTV) apps which stream series and movies directly from the internet. Since users spend alot of time onin these apps – think binge watching – fraudsters can use this opportunity to trick publishers into spending more money. Other scam apps pretend to be popular games, so that app publishers may place their ads there.

Furthermore, by hiding their true nature, the fraud can’t be easily discovered.

2. Out of Context (OOC) Ads

With this method, vile apps prompt pop-ups or push notifications on the home screen that look like other more trusted apps sent them. One app for example showed ads in a Youtube-like preview, luring the user into clicking on them and deceiving advertisers. 
One wave of apps that employed OOC Ads was already discovered in 2020. Although many of them were removed from app stores and new policies were implemented to combat them, some fraudsters still rely on this method.

3. Hidden Ads

To drive ad impressions for their criminal apps, fraudsters delude advertisers into thinking that users see ads when they actually don’t.

For example, one app loads multiple virtual screens (“webviews”) on launch that are hidden from users. These webviews are filled with ads that are invisible to the user’s eyes but seemingly real for the ad network, resulting in money paid for impressions that never actually happened.

4. Fake Clicks

You might have heard about Click Spam or Click Injection, where fraudsters spam fake clicks either constantly or at the time a real click happens, hoping to steal the attribution. The new method goes even further than this and uses real click data to rob advertisers’ marketing budget. 

For example, one app tracks and stores where real clicks have happened and uses this information to disguise their fake clicks as the real deal, cashing in on precious ad money without being responsible for it.

What to do?

As researchers like the HUMAN’s Satori Threat Intelligence & Research uncover more and more of these criminal tactics, scammers not only come up with new methods to steal money but also with tricks to to hide from the good guys.

The latest fraudulent app generation used a development tool called Allatori “which swaps out elements of code for single letters or numbers, making it very difficult for someone to look at the raw code of an app to understand what exactly it’s supposed to do”, researchers write, thus making it harder to discover fradulent code.

As the methods get more and more sophisticated, it gets harder and harder for marketers to spot criminal activity by themselves and counteract on their own. Our advice is to employ a Mobile Measurement Partner (MMP) like Adjust, AppsFlyer, Branch or Kochava

Feel free to drop us a line, if you would like to speak to our consultants about it first.

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