From the Fyre Festival fiasco to the scandalous exploits of Jordan Belfort, stories of fraud and deception have become all too familiar. However, amidst the wreckage of these infamous tales, there lies another, albeit distant, offender. Only, in this instance, the offender continues to cause significant disruption within its domain: mobile app advertising.
Theatrics aside, understanding the escalating problem of mobile ad fraud, and in particular install fraud, is important.
In today’s blog, we will take a quick look over the current state of mobile ad fraud, assessing its motivations, impact, and the ongoing battle to combat its influence in 2023 and beyond.
- Defining mobile ad fraud: Understanding the threat.
- Fraudulent tactics explained: Exploring different types of ad fraud.
- Identifying fraudulent tactics: Sanity checking your campaign metrics.
- Safeguarding Your Campaigns: Mobile ad fraud mitigation techniques.
- The State of Mobile Ad Fraud in 2023.
Defining mobile ad fraud:
Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by mobile ad fraud and how it manifests itself within the app world.
In its simplest form, mobile ad fraud refers to deceptive practices carried out by illegitimate ‘actors’ aiming to profit by tricking advertisers – in this case, mobile app advertisers – into believing that their campaigns reach real audiences. These actors can be broadly categorised into three groups: unethical publishers, independent or organised fraudsters, and occasionally, shady competitors. While these groups are united in their mission to siphon off advertising budgets, the tactics they employ differ.
Fraudulent tactics explained:
By familiarising ourselves with the most common tactics utilised, we, as advertisers, can protect our campaign investments to ultimately create a safer, transparent, and more effective mobile app campaign ecosystem. Presented below are several of the most common fraud types, encompassing both old and emerging practices:
- Click Flooding: Also known as click spamming, occurs when an actor overwhelms an ad with clicks in an attempt to claim credit for a last click attribution before an install occurs.
- Click Injections: This is an advanced type of click flooding. It involves deploying a mobile malware often hidden in an unassuming app to spy on a user. When the user installs an app after seeing an ad, the malware will hijack the attribution from the real source by sending false click reports during the install process.
- SDK Spoofing: SDK spoofing is an install fraud method where fraudsters manipulate an app’s SDK to send fake install reports, leading to inflated attribution numbers.
- Ad Stacking: When multiple ads are layered on top of the other, and whilst a user only sees the top layer of the ad, the impression and/or click is assigned to all ads within the stack.
- Fake Installs: where fraudsters use device emulators, device farms or bots to create false app installations and claim advertising revenue by hiding behind fresh IP addresses or resetting device IDs.
It is important to note that the tactics employed are activated via either human and/or bot interactions. Human interaction involves real people manually committing fraud on real devices, while bots use fake devices or servers. Despite these differences, both methods aim to mimic genuine human engagement with ads, allowing them to receive payment from advertisers, attributing credit to the entity responsible for the last click before a user’s installation. However, recent statistics show that bots now dominate the landscape, with Appsflyer reporting that 70% of mobile install fraud is bot operated. As these bots evolve, distinguishing the fraudulent from genuine ad engagement has become one of the major challenges faced by mobile app marketers today.
Identifying fraudulent tactics
However, we can leverage identification techniques by sanity checking our campaign metrics to strengthen our efforts against these fraudulent practices. Here are some top-line tips, gathered from various sources, that you should question when performing a sanity check on your campaign metrics:
- Conversion Rates: In particular, networks which see a CR lower than 0.1%
- CTIT Distribution Rates: Click to Install rates which sit outside CTIT benchmarks. Typically, 75% of installs happen within the first hour following a click, and approximately 94% of installs occur within 24 hours after the click.
- Click Through Rates: A sudden, unexplainable, spike in traffic.
- Network Buy Rates: Illogical CPM, CPC and/or CPIs between networks.
- Static Click Frequencies: Rhythmic rate frequencies which contest real engagement behaviour.
- Missing Data: Missing network impression data.
Safeguarding your campaigns:
When it comes to dealing with suspected fraud, navigating the landscape can be quite challenging. One approach is to include contractual clauses with network purchases. Another strategy is to conduct an incrementality test where you systematically turn off one network at a time to observe any impact on install conversion volumes.
These efforts can be further fortified by leveraging a third-party anti-fraud measurement solution, such as Appsflyer’s Protect360 or Machine’s AMP. Overall, our advice to you would be to monitor ads in the wild to ensure compliance with agreed practices. This way, you can remain proactive against fraudulent tactics, safeguarding your campaigns’ effectiveness.
The state of mobile ad fraud in 2023
Whilst we are getting savvier when it comes to detecting and mitigating ad fraud, Appsflyer reports that install fraud rates are up on iOS (+40%) and Android (+46%) respectively when comparing the first half of 2022 with the second half.
And so, the burning question remains. What’s behind this ascent?
The surge in mobile ad fraud on app campaigns can be attributed to several factors, beyond just the increasing presence of bots. Firstly, there’s the ‘SKAN distraction’. In a privacy-first era, marketers grapple with ever evolving attribution frameworks for mobile ad attribution, leading to the question of whether core performance monitoring considerations have been neglected of late.
Others, like Incremental, would argue that “fraud is SO much worse in SKAD” than pre-iOS 14.5, as Apple leaves advertisers blind to exactly what advertisers are spending money on. Another more obvious theory revolves around tightening advertising budgets. For instance, to combat rising cost per installs, some advertisers have turned to networks offering ‘too good to be true’ rates, often from networks who conceal impression data. Which, as mentioned in the previous section, is ill-advised.
Regardless of the reason, the issue at hand remains. As such, we encourage you to encompass robust fraud measurement and mitigation practices into your day-to-day mobile app advertising efforts.
By doing so, you can secure a better future for your app and its genuine growth trajectory.