Fraudsters are constantly present in the advertising ecosystem, tirelessly working to compromise publishers’ websites and defraud users. According to GeoEdge’s latest findings, misleading product offer advertisements have emerged as the primary weapon of choice for fraudsters in 2023. When malvertisers are on the move, your website’s credibility is at risk, potentially causing the loss of millions of impressions and draining resources from your Ad Ops team.
Turning a blind eye to online scams is a gamble neither publishers nor platforms can afford to take. The Federal Trade Commission reported U.S. consumers lost $8.8 billion to scams in 2022, the majority of which occurred online. The gravity of the problem is intensifying — the volume of scams has skyrocketed by 30% from last year, and increased 70% from 2020.
Programmatic channels are a haven for scammers, due the low buy-in cost and high returns, making it an ideal vector to propogate their fraudulent schemes. In the U.S. today, one out of every 170 ad impressions is malicious. While there are various types of digital ad scams, misleading product offers are the most widespread and effective tactics employed by scammers. These ads use sensationalized text and imagery to entice users into clicking on ads that lead to a scam. Eliminating misleading product offer ads is crucial for publishers to safeguard users and maintain the integrity of their sites.
What is misleading advertising?
Fraudsters utilize misleading product offers that include clickbait and false claims, to deceive users with ad scams.
Misleading advertising campaigns often lead users to a landing page that is unrelated to the advertised product or service. These pages may prompt users to enter their credit card details, or trick them into installing malware on their devices.
False claims: This type of false advertising makes claims that are not backed up by scientific evidence, or that are simply not true — for example, that certain dietary supplements prevent Alzheimer’s disease or enhance part of the male body.
Manipulative messaging: While not directly making a false claim, these types of ads use images and other tactics to lead consumers to believe things that are not true about a product — for example, that it has health benefits that it doesn’t really possess.
How do misleading ads slip past safeguards?
Misleading ads use techniques like cloaking to get past safeguards.
All SSPs have safeguards and defense mechanisms that are supposed to identify bad ads. So how do misleading product ads bypass them and get distributed on programmatic channels?
Malicious actors will often initiate an attack by purchasing a license on a DSP. Most DSPs have a probation period for new advertisers, during which they review campaigns to determine their legitimacy. So at that point, bad actors may conduct a “warm-up” phase, in which they pretend to be legitimate advertisers.
They upload code that calls for a legitimate ad, leading to a genuine website with no malicious code, and they avoid deploying any attacks until they are approved by the DSP. Once they’re approved, they get rid of the earlier version of the advertisement, and change the code in the background using a tactic known as cloaking, which hides the scam.
Cloaked scams rely on client-side fingerprinting to identify specific users who are vulnerable to being scammed. Users who do not meet the targeted parameters, or non-human environments such as anti-malvertising technology, don’t even see the deceptive landing page. This makes the scams harder to identify.
In addition, malicious advertisers can change the content categories of their ads intentionally after they’re approved, which allows them to evade consumer protection ad policies that prohibit diet scams, trademark-infringing products, malware, and more.
The impact of misleading advertisements on publishers and ad platforms
Misleading advertisements hurt a publisher’s reputation and branding, leading to a higher churn rate, and driving users to install ad blockers that impact advertising revenue.
To preserve their reputation and retain audience loyalty, publishers should ensure ads on their websites do not interrupt the user experience or devalue their content. While different websites have different levels of tolerance for low-quality ads, depending on the expectations of their audiences, ad-supported media necessitates publishers identify all misleading ads before serving them to users.
Consumers do not distinguish between the advertising platform and the publisher’s site, and will mistakenly believe the publisher has deceived them by making false claims. When users lose trust in digital content, they often turn to ad blockers, which put the profitability and sustainability of ad-supported media at risk.
Deceptive advertising in-app
Mobile apps are particularly fertile ground for misleading ads, because they can be cleverly placed between content or stages in games, at which point the consumer is essentially a captive audience.
Advertisers are often willing to pay a higher price to place their advertisements in a certain part of an app. Bad actors have also realized the potential of advertising in mobile apps. For example, in some cases, fraudsters serve ads in a gaming app that look like part of the game, so consumers don’t even realize they’re looking at an ad. These ads may include a CTA such as “click here to advance to the next level.” When the user clicks, the bad actor gains access to their device.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the mobile app market lacks the real-time controls that exist in a web environment. The only available protections are reactive reporting solutions, forcing app developers and publishers to rely on upstream partners to manage ad quality control.
How to detect misleading advertising at scale
Detecting misleading advertising at scale requires real-time ad quality protection.
- Checking whether the landing page content correlates with the ad content
Many bad actors promote clickbait content — celebrity gossip, for example — in an advertising campaign. Then, when users click on the ad, they are taken to a landing page that has nothing to do with what was advertised. Therefore, ad verification solutions should always look at the correlation between the ad and landing page content, and flag ads where there is no correlation.
- Malicious code on the landing pageIn order to get around various ad security mechanisms, cybercriminals often plant malicious code in the landing page to which the ad leads, rather than in the ad creative. Therefore, it’s important for ad quality solutions to scan the landing page, in addition to the ad itself.
- Misleading advertising complaintUsers sometimes submit a complaint to the business that hosts the ad when they have a bad ad experience — for example, if they are served an ad that leads to a malicious landing page. However, consumer reports are often missing important information about the ad, and are only useful for reactive protection.
How to deal with misleading advertising
Preventing misleading advertising requires proactive real-time review of ad and landing page content, to replace bad ads before they are displayed to the user.
SSPs have inherent limitations when it comes to detecting and blocking misleading product ads. First and foremost, they are primarily reactive, blocking campaigns that have been identified as misleading after they have already been served to the consumer.
They don’t have the capacity to review landing pages, cross-check ad content with content on the landing page, or assess the visual and written content of the and the landing page. Even more concerning, although they can sometimes block an ad on the platform that delivered it, they don’t have control over other platforms where the same ad may be shown.
GeoEdge uses a proactive approach to review content in both the ad creative and the landing page, check them for correlation, and cross-check them with highly detailed, real-time blocklists. Machine learning algorithms determine which ads should be blocked in real time — before the ad is served, and before the consumer ever sees it.
When bad ads are blocked, automatic re-auctioning occurs within the ad slot in real time, without disrupting the user experience. This replaces the bad ads with safe creatives, ensuring publishers don’t lose out on advertising revenue
How to prevent misleading advertising
It’s not enough to simply block campaigns or advertisers that show intrusive or misleading ads after they have already been displayed. In order for publishers to maintain their advertising revenue and their brand reputation, they need solutions that can proactively detect and replace misleading ads before they are shown to the consumer.
Misleading advertising is so prevalent that no digital advertising industry stakeholders can afford to ignore it or tackle it alone.
Contact us today to start blocking misleading advertising at scale.