Steal or Scam? Defining Deceptive Holiday Scams


Steal or Scam? Defining Deceptive Holiday Scams

Nothing brings out good holiday cheer like the word “free.” But if the deals consumers are seeing in ads seem too good to be true, there’s a strong chance they are.

This year, GeoEdge insights show a correlation between the holiday shopping season and an uptick in clickbait-style ads, deceptive offers, and misleading claims in ad creative. These ads lead to unsafe landing pages – where would-be shoppers are prompted to share financial details and other personal information, pay for counterfeit or even non-existent products or click on a link that’s actually a malware download.

‘Tis the season to pay close attention to ad quality. Publishers and ad platforms can’t allow cyber criminals and fraudsters to have a holiday in their inventory.

Supply Chain Shortages Fueling Surge in Malicious Advertising

While online cyber sales fell just short of the 2020 pandemic peak, GeoEdge has detected a surge in online ad scams and malicious data collection. As the eCommerce market is booming in 2021, with consumers spending 17.9% more online this year than last– at the same time, consumers are feeling economic anxiety, and have deals on the brain. Shopping online may be convenient, but GeoEdge research reveals, online shopping is more dangerous now than in years prior. Consumers are on edge as demand for so many products exceeds supply, pushing up prices and ramping up the urgency to buy when a sought-after product seems to finally be available.

Meanwhile, users today are accustomed to seeing targeted ads – ads offering deals on products they’ve been browsing for are a normal sight. This current consumer mentality along with social engineering tactics make this Holiday season a dangerous one for online users, publishers and platforms.

Deceptive Holiday Scam Season Shifts Into High Gear

GeoEdge saw an increase in ad security and quality incidents in the month of November, with spikes in the appearance of bad ads throughout the month, including around Black Friday and Cyber Monday. As users shop for deals in December, publishers are faced with an influx of ads falling into sensitive categories including Marijuana, Alcohol and Gambling.

Figure 1: Ads across sensitive content categories

Off-brand and deceptive creativity is the cause of great concern for publishers – because of the current consumer mindset, along with the prevalence of deceptive ads in the digital ecosystem. In fact, in 2021, 48% of the low-quality ads publishers are seeing are misleading ads, and 89% of publishers see deceptive ads delivered to their properties every week.

Breaking Down Malicious Maneuvers

Let’s break down tactics bad actors are using to convince users to do their bidding:

Clickbait: To convince users to click on their ads, cybercriminals use ad creative with a tempting offer and eye-catching creative – for example, salacious text or images, or a fake celebrity endorsement. Frequently, the landing page behind the ad has nothing to do with the ad’s content.

Figure 2: Clickbait creative


Misleading ads: Here, the landing page is unrelated to the product or service in the ad creative content, or it belongs to a fake and non-existent retailer, or the ad and/or landing page promises popular products that are hard to find or out of stock among other retailers.

Deceptive offers: Deceptive offers attempt to trap users with fraudulent or non-existent products. The product may never arrive at the consumer’s doorstep, or at best it might be a cheap knockoff. At worst, the user may find they’re being billed monthly after signing up for an ostensibly “free” trial or may be enrolled in monthly payments without their consent at all. Publishers have seen spikes in deceptive offers before: Remember the early days of the Covid pandemic, when the ecosystem saw a surge of bad actors misrepresenting cheap masks and offering non-existent treatments.

Deceptive landing pages: These are duped landing pages mimicking the look and feel of the sites of legitimate, trusted brands. Because the user trusts the real brand, they’re more likely to go through the checkout process, share their financial details, or click on a link that ultimately downloads malware to their device.

Deceptive Landing Page Giveaways

Here are some subtle elements that can reveal a deceptive landing page is deceptive:

  • The URL looks like the URL of a trustworthy brand, but it adds an extra letter or number.
  • The page offers bargain-basement prices on holiday wishlist items like popular toys, video game consoles, and designer clothes and accessories.
  • The web copy has misspellings, grammatical errors, repetitive or nonsensical language, or minimal or absent contact information.

Saving Users From Deceptive Holiday Scams

But publishers can take action to detect and block deceptive and misleading ads before they reach the page and place users at risk. Implement these solutions to uphold the ad quality standards this time of year needs:

  •  Real-time detection and blocking of bad ads along the entire ad supply chain. The publisher may be the one touching the end-user, but ad platforms and all other partners along the chain must do their part.
  • Analysis of landing pages, not just ad creative. With deceptive ads, the landing page is typically where the most damage to the user occurs.
  • Cloaking detection. Fraudsters often cloak their creativity by showing a “clean” version to scanners along the supply chain, then swap in the deceptive, harmful creative once it reaches a human user. Full protection of ad inventory requires a solution that can detect the real, cloaked creative before it hits the page.
  • Manual review for borderline creatives insensitive ad categories. No one understands brand safety and suitability standards as well as the individual publisher’s human team. GeoEdge’s AdWatch gives the team a full view of all the ads on their sites, so they can verify the quality of the ads and remove those that don’t pass muster.

Take control of your ad inventory this holiday season, and don’t let your audiences get the impression you’re in cahoots with fraudsters and crooks. This season, let Ad Quality be Your Strategic Differentiator. Talk with GeoEdge today about how we can work together to protect your audiences on the terms you need to best manage your business.

Tobias is an experienced marketing leader and Chief Business Officer at GeoEdge. He believes success in business is fueuled by a passion for the product and purposeful messaging. Connect with Tobias on Linkedin to discuss strategic business development.

Malvertising, the practice of sprinkling malicious code into legitimate-looking ads is growing more sophisticated. GeoEdge’s holistic ad quality solution has you covered.


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