Coles, ING, Hyundai, Ford, Telstra among blue chips snared by 'click fraud' trap

By David Blight | 21 November 2013
Reckitt Benckiser is just one brand which has fallen victim to "click fraud".

Big brands are still appearing on dodgy websites. Ads from Coles, Ford, Reckitt Benckiser, Hyundai, ING Direct and Telstra are but a few. It's eating up ad budgets and funding criminals. But the industry says it is almost impossible to stop. is a “highly illegal site,” according to Jonathan Despinidic, the director of media trading firm Multiscreen Media, and former vice-president of ad network industry body IASH. The big brands above are all advertising on it.

The site "fraudulently" portrays itself as a legal site through a technique called URL masking, said Despinidic and taps into dozens of different ad networks and ad servers to serve video ads from big name brands.

The website then hides the video ad behind a more inviting 'click here' button, causing people to click on the ad more frequently, and therefore taking sizeable sums out of marketers' digital budgets by artificially increasing the click rates.

Meanwhile, the video ads are placed in an unsafe digital environment, featuring both soft and hardcore pornography, as well as illegal streaming.

The brands which have appeared in video ads on this site include Coles, Dyson, Ford, Reckitt Benckiser, Microsoft, ING Direct, Mastercard, L'Oreal, Australia Post, Telstra, Hyundai, Kia, Singapore Airlines, Olympus, Fonterra and Schick. However, Despinidic stressed that such sites have the ability to affect almost all digital advertisers, and argued it is almost impossible to stop. He said these sites are often created by offshore criminal conglomerates, but they could also be the work of a single operator in a “back room in Australia”.

When AdNews informed Coles about the placement of its video ads on an illegal site, the brand pledged to take immediate action. A spokesperson said: “Clearly this site is using our content without our knowledge or permission. We were very concerned to see our brand used in this way and have taken immediate steps with our digital agency to attempt to have the content taken down from this site.

“Click-fraud is a concern for the industry as a whole. Our agency [UM] uses a number of measures, both technology-based identification and human filtering, to minimise the likelihood of fraudulent activity but it is a constant battle to stay one step ahead. Every instance we become aware of is investigated and helps us improve the systems we have in place.”

Despinidic told AdNews: “This is just one site. The Australian digital industry sees about $2 billion in ad revenue. I think you could comfortably say there could be up to a third of that which is obtained illegally. In the case of this site, the people who are running it are click scamming, it's click fraud. It makes you realise just how easy it is to steal brands money in this space.”

UM chief executive Mat Baxter agreed it is almost impossible to stop. In contrast to Despinidic, he argued that the instances of ads appearing on such sites is minimal. However, he admitted there is a “double whammy” when brands appear on such websites, because not only do ads appear among pornographic or illegal content, but a brand's digital budget is sifted into the coffers of criminals.

“The reality of the internet is that you can't completely police it,” Baxter said. “It's the cost of entry. There is a degree of exposure inherent. Brands will do all they can to minimise this, but there is risk attached. We [at UM] have one of the most comprehensive protection mechanisms in the market, but clients still get exposed. It's important to realise that the brands are the victims here, as are the ad networks, because there is a very smart person out there somewhere tricking the ads to be where they shouldn't be. There's not a brand or agency around that wants this to happen.”

The Audited Media Association of Australia (AMAA) has been pushing for an industry-wide code of conduct to help stop advertisers from appearing on illegal websites, and to help advertisers protect their brand identity and ad dollars.

AMAA chief executive Paul Dovas argued there needs to be collaboration between all corners of the digital industry, including publishers, agencies, brands, DSPs, exchanges, SSPs and so on. “Everyone needs to be part of the conversation, because one weak link can be a problem.”

AdNews has approached all named brands for comment.

This story will be updated as more brand ads are found on the site.










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