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By Detlev Johnson
Even though they decline to prosecute, and no laws may actually
be broken, Paid To Read (PTR) gangs of clickers now appear
on the FBI's
radar. It may be usage of the word "fraud" in
click fraud that got their attention. Even purveyors of more
traditional click fraud exploits are getting worried. One
Russian programmer that sells a clickbot application even
quipped "You aren't going to send the FBI to me, are
you?" after admitting the primary use of his clickbot
is to cheat advertisers.
The problem originated with search engines that seem to
be overzealous in distributing their ads so widely across
parked domains and other low quality scraper sites. The shame
is that distributing ads to these sites fuels the fraud uncontrollably,
when the engines could simply exercise more caution with
whom they choose for distributing their ads.
No one can stop click fraud from happening altogether. Anonymous
browsing, and the anonymous proxies that enable it, is one
of the fundamental ways to click ads and go undetected. If
your purpose is to earn money with PTR, and you're careful
enough, then you can do so successfully and never get caught.
The thing is, there will always be anonymous browsing.
The search engines could choose to not charge click costs
from users that visit through anonymous proxies or refuse
cookies. They won't. In the meantime they are making a mint.
They cannot possibly detect even the most basic anonymous
browsing from competitor fraud, let alone sophisticated methods
that deploy PTR gangs and a recipe that can make them impossible
to detect. It's not as if the search engines aren't aware
what they can do. Briefly, Google blocked Tor, a peer-to-peer
anonymizer, but that only lasted hours or days. There's too
much advertiser money at stake.
The search engines also count on the fact that you aren't
going to spend the time to go through the trouble of finding
bad clicks on your own. You would have to spend the time
to successfully argue for a refund too. With stories like
this one from BusinessWeek, cases where the search engine's
meager refunds were awarded, their flimsy explanation that
they didn't charge for the majority of the fraud in the first
place is disingenuous, and the whole thing seems pointless
for all that energy expended. People have begun to consider
it just an unfortunate cost of doing business.
The problem is the search engines won't reveal any real
details at all. It is true they can't and shouldn't. Sure,
you can get a column of clicks from Google they say were
delivered and not charged against your account. But in fact,
all that really does is allow Google to argue a smaller payout
for you is appropriate after their "investigation." It
proves they recorded clicks and did not charge you, but the
real details remain hidden by Google so they can tell you
what they want.
Hence the quagmire for advertisers that is favorable for
the engines. The only defense an advertiser has is planning
budget limits after a seasoned account has built up some
obvious norms for you. If you have some runaway keywords,
(ones you want to appear every time a search is conducted),
watch them carefully for fraud spikes. Don't count on the
FBI to do anything about click fraud. The activity does not
appear to be illegal at this time.
Your only legal recourse today might be civil court. For
the most part though, those matters have largely been resolved
by the search engines already. Their settlements for the
past are in. There is little you can do but be vigilant about
fraud moving forward. Be sure to consider supporting measures
by Washington that can address the issue, the same way spam
legislation has sent some spammers to jail. Then the FBI
will not only take notice, but perhaps take action as well.
Detlev Johnson is Vice President of PositionTech and
publisher of SearchReturn, a respected source of search
industry news and information.