The news: Facebook is suing two shady developers for using Audience Network to gin up fake clicks on Facebook ads.
What isn’t news: Audience Network, which advertisers use to extend their Facebook campaigns to third-party sites and apps, can be a conduit for ad fraud and fake traffic.
The developers, Hong Kong-based LionMobi and Singapore-based JediMobi, allegedly installed malware on users’ phones that simulated real people clicking on ads, generating payouts from Facebook. Aka, click injection.
Facebook detected the fraud as part of its “continuous efforts to investigate and stop abuse by app developers and any abuse of our advertising products,” Jessica Romero, Facebook’s director of platform enforcement and litigation, said Tuesday in a blog post.
LionMobi and JediMobi have been banned from Audience Network and Facebook refunded impacted advertisers in March.
Click injection is a fairly common form of ad fraud, and “done right, fraudsters can literally make millions of dollars monthly, essentially printing money,” said John Koetsier, VP of insights at Singular.
It works like this: Fraudulent developers get their apps installed on as many phones as possible – in this case, both developers peddled their apps in the Google Play store – and insert ad network SDKs into the apps.
From there, they generate fake traffic, fake users, fake activity, fake ad viewing and fake clicks in their apps, while collecting money for those ad views from ad networks such as Audience Network.
But ad networks also make money from these schemes, even though they’re not the ones perpetrating the fraud. Ad networks and their publisher partners get paid by selling ad impressions and producing clicks, which provides fertile ground for manipulation.
“The clicks make it look like people ‘engaged’ with the ads, which in turn causes the advertiser to spend more money buying those ad impressions,” said independent fraud researcher Augustine Fou. “Sadly, clicks don’t necessarily translate into sales or actual business outcomes for advertisers.”
Facebook ads that appear on its owned-and-operated properties work really well, Fou said. Put another way, that means low volume, highly targeted ads are effective.
But if marketers turn on Audience Network for more reach, their ads appear on sites and apps outside of Facebook, and that can expose their budgets to ad fraud and click fraud.
As to why Facebook filed this lawsuit now, one can only speculate. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s unclear how long Facebook knew about this particular scheme or how many other developers are abusing the platform. What is clear, though, is that Facebook doesn’t want to get dinged for sitting on its hands a la Cambridge Analytica, and so it’s being proactive.
And Facebook isn’t the only party starting to take matters into its own hands. In June, Uber brought suit against five ad networks – Hydrane SAS, BidMotion, Taptica, YouAppi and AdAction Interactive – for wasting tens of millions of dollars to buy fake, nonviewable ads.