Integral Ad Science warns of growing 404bot threat

IAS Threat Lab calls for industry to update Ads.txt files to stop growing bot scheme responsible for millions of dollars in ad fraud

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Integral Ad Science (IAS), the digital ad verification outfit, has issued a warning to the ad industry about a large-scale ad fraud scheme which produces fake browser data and fabricated URLs in order to steal advertisers’ media spend.

IAS estimates the 404bot scheme has cost the industry upwards of US$15 million dollars and has affected over 1.5 billion video ads. According to its conservative estimates, during a recent period of high activity, between April and September 2019, the fraud scheme affected over 600 million ads.

“The 404bot has been active since 2018 and its unchecked growth now warrants industry action,” said head of IAS Threat Lab, Evgeny Shmelkov. 

Earlier this year, IAS Threat Lab uncovered a large-scale ad fraud scheme in which a network of infected devices was being used to generate billions of ad calls to fake URLs - a practice known as domain spoofing - and inspired the fraud scheme’s name, 404bot. 

The domain spoofing operation was widespread several years ago and to combat the ad fraud, IAB Technology Lab started the ‘authorised digital sellers' initiative, known as Ads.txt, which allows an adtech player to publicly declare other companies that are authorised to sell its digital inventory. 

According to IAS, Ads.txt has had widespread adoption; however, domain spoofing continues to plague the online ad space and it claims some publishers don’t use Ads.txt properly or fail to properly vet the partners on the Ads.txt list.

The IAS Threat Lab continually monitors for bot activity and noticed a rise in domain spoofing, believed to be generated by a single botnet. After a sustained period of monitoring, IAS felt the 404bot had been active for too long, with no clear signs of it being shut down, and required a warning to operators in the ad-tech ecosystem to clean up their inventories.

“Publishers have done an excellent job in implementing Ads.txt, but what we are learning from this bot is that it is crucial to continuously audit and update Ads.txt files.”

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