Dodgy agency tries to con publisher in ads.txt fraud saga

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 3 November 2017

In a bold attempt to circumvent the IAB's latest crackdown on ad fraud, a phony 'cowboy' agency called Thrive+ has begun approaching publishers to get onto whitelists - which are designed to weed out fraudsters.

Publishers have whitelists designating which advertisers they will accept on their site and which they will block. When used correctly, white and blacklists can yield positive outcomes, but if the wrong advertisers are on the wrong list it can result in major brand and publisher backlash.

Thrive+, which describes itself as “a revolutionary video media agency” and has skiing videos on is homepage, made an unsolicited approach to publisher McClatchy, which owns newspapers Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. On Tuesday it asked both Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald to add Thrive's ads.txt ID to its list of "trusted" resellers.

The email, shared with AdNews, said it would no longer be able to purchase the newspapers' inventory on behalf of its clients and if the newspapers did not add Thrive's ads.txt ID 'you will be adversely impacted' before later suggesting 'we are generously rewarding those sites who we work directly with'.

Charles Stafford, who works in McClatchy's ad tech and martech division, told AdNews the national newspaper group only deals solely with reputable supply-side platforms (SSPs) for its programmatic inventory and negotiates service agreements with each partner.

“Getting an unsolicited request from an agency with whom we've never had dealings is definitely a red flag for us, especially given the ads.txt info they sent,” Stafford said.

“The key indicators here (see below) are those that indicate we have 'DIRECT' control over each account listed. Obviously we do not. If this were legitimate, we might have direct control over the first account with Thrive+ and everything else would be listed as 'RESELLER'.”

thrive-adstxt.jpg

Stafford said the springserve and lkqd and aol and spotx domains (above) provide clues to the type or reselling operation this 'agency' runs (see Thrive's email below).

“Most of the exchanges listed handle video,” he says. “The way this works is that they'll buy display inventory on our site, load a player and then make requests of the video exchanges for video ads instead.”

“Whenever we spot an ad like that, we have to do some research to figure out how it's getting on to our site, via which partner, etc. We always see springserve and lkqd and aol and spotx domains.'

AdNews approached Thrive+ for clarification through a form on its website that doesn't include a contact name or phone number, which is unusual for small operators in the media and advertising industry.

AdNews also couldn't find any LinkedIn listings of the 'Fiona Walsh' that emailed the McClatchy's newspapers.

thrive-team.jpgThrive+ is staffed by questionable footwear choices.

A timely reminder

The approach is a warning shot to publishers that dodgy resellers and fraudsters aren't going to take changes that cut them out of the ecosystem lightly.

In Australia, about 300 publishers have either implemented or committed to the IAB's ads.txt programme, which helps media buyers and DSPs identify legitimate resellers and inventory.

Major publishers, including The Guardian Australia, News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media and Mamamia, are now all on board after a slow adoption rate. The IAB's aim is to reach 1,000 to ensure there is a critical mass of inventory.

The initiative is designed to identify and remove shady resellers as well as eradicate the practice of domain spoofing, where fraudsters use a hoax websites that appear like reputable newsbrands to trick programmatic buyers on the open exchange.

It has received support from media buyers and DSPs, with Google's DoubleClick Ad Exchange and Ad Sense filtering unauthorised inventory from auction at the end of the year.

IAB Australia's ad tech expert Jonas Jaanimagi says mass adoption of ads.txt will benefit the entire digital advertising eco system.

“Sellers will be protected from spoofing and buyers can buy programmatically with greater confidence from domains with this simple solution in place. The wide-scale adoption of ads.txt will give major brands peace of mind that their marketing messages will only appear on verified domains, significantly improving brand safety and eliminating any risk of ad fraud related to domain spoofing.”

The Guardian Australia is an earlier adopter of ads.txt in this market. National sales director Tony Bell tells AdNews the initiative will help the publisher regain control of its supply chain.

“About 18 months ago there was a realisation that we had really lost control of our supply chain. Other vendors were making decisions on our pricing and where the inventory was going.” 

Bell says The Guardian has a list of about 10 SSPs it works with who are bound by strict conditions.

Unlicensed vendors that buy cheap inventory, insert video units and charge advertisers for more expensive video formats do a lot of damage to the broader ecosystem by robbing and tarnishing publishers and conning advertisers.

“The other problem is that the buyer might not have any idea if it is legitimate and if it underperforms that affects the reputation of the Guardian," Bell adds.

IAB Australia has urged all Australian publishers to adopt ads.txt. Visit their website for more details.

AdNews would like to hear from any publishers that have received unsolicited approaches or have information about unscrupulous operators. Please contact: arvindhickman@yaffa.com.au.

Thrive's email in full

Hi,

Thrive+ has been purchasing a substantial amount of your ad inventory through various ad exchanges over the past year on behalf of our advertising clients and needs your assistance to continue.

On Thursday 11/2, we will no longer be able to purchase inventory on your domain without a Thrive.Plus Ads.txt file in place.

We will only be allocating budget to sites we can work directly with that have our seller ID located in your 'ads.txt' server file. This change and requirement is due to advertisers' concerns of growing fraud and transparency issues on ad exchanges. Our advertisers have collectively agreed to require the ads.txt IDs to insure continued purchasing on your site. If you do not add the IDs you will be adversely impacted.

To resolve this issue, simply add our Ads.txt IDs below to your Ads.txt file on your site so that we can stay an active buyer. In addition, please respond promptly to me so I can answer any questions you may have and we can work with you directly to increase your rates and earnings beyond the current level. We are generously rewarding those sites who we work with directly.

Simply paste the following ID list as is into your 'ads.txt' file to resolve this:

thrive.plus, 190, DIRECT, thrive.plus, 190, DIRECT
google.com, pub-6373315980741255, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0
spotxchange.com, 156078, DIRECT, 7842df1d2fe2db34
spotx.tv, 156078, DIRECT, 7842df1d2fe2db34
contextweb.com, 560800, DIRECT, 89ff185a4c4e857c
springserve.com, 190, DIRECT
lkqd.net, 295, DIRECT, 59c49fa9598a0117
lkqd.com, 295, DIRECT, 59c49fa9598a0117
aol.com, 6202, DIRECT
aol.com, 17744, DIRECT
advertising.com, 6202, DIRECT
advertising.com, 17744, DIRECT

Thank you for your time and I'm happy to answer any questions you may have.

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