The Devil is in the Details: Analyzing the Lucrative Ad Fraud Patterns of the Online Ad Ecosystem

The online advertising market has recently reached the 500 billion dollar mark, and to accommodate the need to match a user with the highest bidder at a fraction of a second, it has moved towards a complex automated model involving numerous agents and middle men. Stimulated by potential revenue and the lack of transparency, bad actors have found ways to abuse it, circumvent restrictions, and generate substantial revenue from objectionable and even illegal content. To make matters worse, they often receive advertisements from respectable companies which have nothing to do with these illegal activities. Altogether, advertiser money is funneled towards unknown entities, supporting their objectionable operations and maintaining their existence. In this project, we work towards understanding the extent of the problem and shed light on how shady agents take advantage of gaps in the ad ecosystem to monetize their operations. We study over 7 million websites and examine how state-of-the-art standards associated with online advertising are applied. We discover and present actual practices observed in the wild and show that publishers are able to monetize objectionable and illegal content and generate thousands of dollars of revenue on a monthly basis.


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