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Internet Ad Companies Up the Ante on Ad Scams

Tech-support swindles are highlighted in coalition's first report

One big problem with fraudulent ads on the Internet is they keep coming back—and that's not good for either sellers or buyers of digital advertising.

Trying a new strategy to combat Internet ad scams, malvertising and counterfeit ads, Google, Facebook, AOL and Twitter launched Thursday TrustInAds.org, a new organization aimed at identifying scam trends and protecting consumers from malicious online ads.

It's the second attempt for the companies, which two years ago formed the Ads Integrity Alliance with similar goals. That alliance, which was very tech-focused, was shut down last year due to a lack of consumer outreach.

The coalition also released its first "trend alert report" on tech-support advertising scams, one of the newest scam categories popping up on the Internet. The report, available at TrustinAds.org web site, explains how tech-support scammers trick users into installing malware. The website and report also provide consumers with common sense tips about how to avoid malicious ads and how to report suspicious ads to the companies and the government.

Despite ongoing efforts by the companies to disable malicious ads with automated systems and other techniques, tech-support scams were initially hard to identify.

Because the ads closely resembled policy-compliant ads, they didn't raise any red flags. Even the landing pages that the tech support ads took consumers to were not suspicious. But following consumer complaints and the discovery that consumers were often asked to install special software that was really malware, Google and Facebook tweaked their algorithms to automatically remove the tech support scams. Coupled with manual review (actually calling the 800-numbers), the companies removed 4,000 suspicious accounts linked to more than 2,400 tech support websites.

Google and other Internet companies have often been criticized for not doing enough to stop malicious ads, which put the Internet business model at risk.  If Internet companies can't find a solution, consumers lose trust in the ads they encounter online, legitimate brands will turn their backs on the growing medium and Internet companies will lose revenue.

But scrubbing the Internet of bad ads is often described by the companies as a game of whack-a-mole. Google, for example, took down 350 million bad ads last year and disabled 270,000 advertisers.

"This is an ever-evolving and ongoing fight. Bad actors are relentless, often very sophisticated and will not rest on their laurels. But neither are we," Mike Hochberg, director of ads engineering wrote in a Google blog post reporting the company's takedown scorecard for bad ads. 

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