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Zombie apps are next challenge in mobile ad fraud cleanup efforts

Just days after the Trustworthy Accountability Group inked a deal with Google to swat back fraudulent ad clicks generated by data centers on behalf of unscrupulous publishers, an ad fraud detection and prevention company has revealed the scope of a new type of ad fraud.

Forensiq has reported that “mobile device hijacking”–malicious mobile applications that rapidly load hidden ads and emulate human behavior–is taking place on more than 12 million devices and accounts for 13% of global in-app pre-bid advertising inventory.  They also project that mobile ad fraud will surpass the $1 billion mark globally in 2015.

In the course of the study, Forensiq identified over 5,000 malicious apps that masquerade as legitimate apps and can be downloaded from app stores such as iOS App Store and Google Play. Once downloaded, the apps run constantly, even when the user isn’t interacting with them. These malicious apps can load as many as 700 ads, often invisibly to the phone user, on a single hijacked device in an hour. Mobile device hijacking can cause a device to waste as much as 2GB of data per day.

Forensic also observed fraudulent apps selling traffic through most major ad exchanges and networks. These apps would establish on average 1100 connections per minute and communicate with 320 ad networks, ad servers, exchanges and data providers in the course of an hour.

“With technology evolving so quickly and cyber threats adapting at similar rates, the call for industry self-regulation to combat this criminal activity is more important than ever.  The Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) is the place where the entire digital supply chain has converged to develop the most effective tools to fight fraud, malware, and piracy,” said Mike Zaneis, executive vice president for the Interactive Advertising Bureau and interim CEO for TAG.  “We can react much more quickly to threats than government regulations.  The most impactful role for government in this space is the information sharing collaboration that we’ve created with Federal law enforcement to help them more effectively track down the criminals.”

The Trustworthy Accountability Group, a self-regulatory organization formed nearly a year ago by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies has put in place a number of initiatives in their effort to eliminate fraud, piracy and malware associated with advertising on the Internet.

These include creating the Fraud Threat List, a database of domains identified as sources of fraudulent bot traffic for digital ads, and, working with Google and others, compiling a database of data center IP addresses, which will allow the digital ad industry to block illegitimate and non-human ad traffic that originates from certain data centers.  TAG is also working to develop programs to keep legitimate advertising revenue from lining the pockets of movie and tv piracy sites.