Inside TAG’s Ad Fraud Battle Plan

The organization's COO explains how the digital advertising industry is working together to fight crime

Rachel Nyswander Thomas speaking at Adweek Nextech 2019
Rachel Nyswander Thomas speaking at Adweek's NexTech panel on July 25
Sean T. Smith for Adweek

When the National Crime Prevention Council, the Ad Council and Saatchi & Saatchi introduced McGruff the Crime Dog in 1978 to help Americans “Take a Bite Out of Crime,” they could hardly have foreseen the need for digital-ad-industry-specific crime dogs 40 years later. Yet here we are.

That’s where organizations like the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), an advertising industry initiative to fight criminal activity in the digital supply chain, come in. TAG, like McGruff himself, can’t do it alone—and at Adweek’s inaugural NexTech event last week, Rachel Nyswander Thomas, chief operating officer at TAG, said the FBI is one of the organizations TAG works with to stop criminal activity—and to recover roughly $8 billion a year that would be lost otherwise.

During her panel, Thomas spoke with Adweek tech reporter Shoshana Wodinsky about multiple ways the digital advertising industry is working together to combat fraud.

Ads.Txt and App-Ads.Txt

Thomas said ads.txt is a good example of industry-wide collaboration to fight fraud. This is a text file the webmaster posts to a domain, which allows publishers and distributors to list who is authorized to sell their ad inventory—and for brands to be more confident they are buying authentic inventory. And while ads.txt originated with publishers on the sell-side, Thomas noted it has since evolved so agencies and advertisers on the buy-side recognize it—and even seek it out.

Digital advertising in advanced TV, which includes connected TV (CTV) and over-the-top (OTT), is relatively new—and so is the fraud within. Thomas, however, said it’s really the same story from a criminal perspective. As a result, the IAB Tech Lab, a nonprofit consortium that helps develop technical standards for digital media, has since released app-ads.txt, an extension of ads.txt for apps to help “remove misrepresented app inventory from programmatic supply chain.”

Real-Time Threat Sharing

In 2018, TAG debuted its TAG Threat Exchange to allow buy- and sell-side platforms to share suspicious activity on their networks with each other as well as law enforcement, including IP addresses with fraudulent activity or data centers with bot traffic.

Thomas said Drainerbot is an example of why digital advertising needs real-time threat sharing like this. Drainerbot is the mobile ad fraud operation distributed through Android apps like virtual makeup app Perfect365, which was discovered by software giant Oracle earlier this year. Once apps were infected, they consumed data on users’ devices while also delivering invisible ads so ad networks thought advertisements had appeared on publisher sites. At the time, TAG helped Oracle spread the word about the threat.

“Working together to bring down criminal entities is exciting and it’s new to the industry,” Thomas said. “It’s not new to the financial industry or energy, etcetera, but it’s new to us.”

Thomas said this is also a mark of the industry’s maturity.

“Getting to real-time threat-sharing is the next leap in solving criminal issues,” she added.

Updates

At the same time, fraud exists everywhere—and it will exist in whatever the industry creates next. “It doesn’t mean the world is ending—it just means you created something valuable,” she added.

That’s why Thomas said TAG will continue to tweak its certification programs and guidelines so the organization can solve issues within whatever ad inventory comes next. The goal is to make the space less enticing for criminals, which is to say to make it harder to turn an illicit profit.

“They came to this industry because it was easy—they will go elsewhere if it becomes hard,” she added. “We will never get rid of fraud, but we can tamp it down to get back to our day jobs.”

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