Digital Advertising Fraud & Abuse: Strategies & Recommendations for Mitigation

BACKGROUND Let’s define “fraud” as advertising that is meant to trick brands into believing that the paid media that they bought was seen by “real” people who actually engaged with that media. Fraud can occur as clicks on search engine result pages (SERPs), impressions against display ads, or false conversion events on individual websites. Let’s define “abuse” as advertising practices or incidents inconsistent with accepted and sound business or fiscal practices. For instance, abuse could be faulty video view data via page-loading bots or publisher settings that auto-play video content. Fraud and abuse can occur at the impression, click or conversion level:


There are various mechanisms/tactics to inflate impressions, including:

  • Impression Bots: This mechanism infects a host computer and then—in the background—opens a browser and cycles through URLs for many publisher sites. These bots have the ability to serve impressions to publishers. As a result, advertisers see that the ads have been served to various IP addresses, thinking they’re being served to genuine people.
  • Ad Stacking: This tactic basically stacks multiple ads on top of each other. To the advertiser, these impressions appear as if that have actually served correctly to the ad server and/or DSP.
  • Auto-Play Settings: Not a fraudulent practice, but a setting that can result in faulty data for video view metrics. Some publishers and sites may auto-load content, or some bots may enable the loading of videos. If not verified, this type of traffic can skew video advertising metrics and misdirect budget calculations.

One metric for understanding whether these tactics are happening to your media is viewability (viewable impressions/impressions from the ad server). Some ad servers are now making this metric a native feature in their product suites.


Additionally, fraudsters use tactics to inflate click volume. For instance, “click farms” are teams of people who click on ads—across channels—to artificially inflate clicks. They can mask their IP addresses to specific geo targets. Additionally, they’ll visit advertisers’ sites to trigger retargeting, as retargeting campaigns generally have higher CPMs/CPCs. In search, the majority of click fraud is caught by the engines, and all corresponding CPCs are refunded. However, excessive click fraud refunds can negatively impact monthly budget pacing and conversion goals. Use bounce and conversion rates to determine whether clicks are inflated in your campaigns.


Conversion fraud is a bit different. It’s more prevalent for lead generation advertisers because of the ability to enter fake data (as opposed to e-commerce advertisers, where goals are more ROAS- (return on ad spend) focused). Lead bots and lead farms (the same teams responsible for clicking on the ads) can also fill out lead forms with somewhat correct info to impersonate people, thus driving artificial leads. There are also ways to “stuff cookies” so that advertisers’ ad servers show higher sales/transaction volume than what actually occurred. There are several technologies in the marketplace that enable advertisers to more accurately understand “real” impression and click levels. For conversion fraud, advertisers and their agencies should utilize log-level files based on conversions to spot inconsistencies in conversion data. Pay close attention to conversion rates to uncover whether this is happening. Run an order or lead ID report from your customer relationship management (CRM) system to see if these transactions are occurring. Reach out to your leads and talk to them about when and where they submitted information to your site.


  1. Implement fourth-party verification services for both paid search and display media buying
  2. Control affiliates with conditional conversion firing to ensure affiliate conversions are de-duplicated from paid search and other media (e.g. display and social)
  3. Make strict return on investment goals based on engagement
  4. Use attribution tracking systems to understand the lifetime value of your customers
  5. Monitor and segment homepage bouncers in your retargeting media buying
  6. Make sure that your day parting strategy is consistent in all regions where you’re targeting ads
  7. Set up daily, weekly and monthly true-up checks with any search management technology platforms you use to catch irregular click fraud refunds from the search engines that may skew budget pacing.

For additional info, see Display at Fraud 101 on YouTube. If you need help preventing fraud & abuse in your search, display, social & affiliate advertising, contact Performics today.

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