Jenna Devinney
Jenna Devinney 22 August 2019

How Click Fraudsters are Hurting the Email Industry

If you’ve never heard of Click Farms, then you are in for a shock.  Almost no one is immune from click fraudsters no matter if you’re a small business running two campaigns or a large global enterprise running thousands, everyone is a victim of click fraud. Find out how it's hurting your emails...

Most Digital Marketers understand advertising is a primary revenue generator for millions of websites and mobile apps.  Most also are aware email marketing is the best channel in terms of ROI as many companies attribute 20%+ of their total sales to email marketing.  What surprises Digital Marketers most is when they identify email addresses in their “Most Engaged Brand Advocates” marketing initiatives that are fraudsters (not real humans).  Once the reality that this might be a possibility impacting customer & prospecting marketing initiatives they ask “How can this happen to my company?”  I don’t purchase lists.  I don’t participate in sketchy sweepstake acquisition campaigns.  Our email center of excellence follows industry best practices.  We are ‘White Hat’ in every step we take.  We’re a trusted brand.  They often ask next “Why would a malicious company “double opt-in” to my email campaigns”?  What’s in it for them?  How can I identify the individuals that are fraudulently interacting with my emails campaigns to boost traffic to my website product or service pages artificially?  I need to understand more; please help.

The initial step is to be aware that fraudsters and ClickFarms are real and do exist.  These fraudsters need to be in your email list.  They benefit significantly from being marketed as an engaged person in your newsletter marketing campaigns.  Click fraud from ClickFarms is one of many issues the email marketing industry deals with daily.   To help our clients eliminate this problem, Webbula’s passionate data scientists live to identify these typically bot driven, non-humans that are backed by automated scripts that generate invalid clicks and fraudulent activity.  

This article will discuss what exactly a ClickFarm is and how we see it hurting the email ecosystem.  This article will not be talking click activity on your emails caused by Email Security Servers clicking on one or more links to verify that a link is, in fact, safe to click for a human to prevent phishing scams.  This is a topic for a different article.   We’re here to talk about the Dark Side - the bad actors.

What is ClickFarms? 

A click farm is where click fraud lives with a combination of human and automated clickers.  You may find a large group of low paid workers sitting in front of computers or mobile phones clicking to create views, likes, and followers in support of some pay-for-performance advertising customer. 

Click farms can be found in developing countries where low-cost labor markets exist such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  ClickFarm employees and software routines are trained to click on your links with no intention of converting.  They visit sites and rack up worthless impressions.  They fill out forms with false information, generating false customer & prospect leads.  This kind of internet fraud is becoming increasingly common, as unscrupulous websites seek to game reputation & review rankings online to become top of the shopping list for buyers.

It’s also increasingly hard to continue to trust Open and Click data.  The more links clicked on; website landing pages visited the more revenue in the fraudsters pockets. 

What’s worse about click farms? It's tough for an automation system to detect that this traffic is fake, and what's interesting is that click farms are entirely different from bot traffic.    

Click farms sound very technical, but actually, it's a fundamental process. The farms can come in a variety of sizes from one person to a warehouse full of thousands of phones and computers.

Why do ClickFarms exist?

They make lots of money.  ClickFarms guarantee unique visitors, page views and advertising click through.  Pay-per-click (PPC), also known as cost per click (CPC), is an internet advertising model used to drive traffic to websites, in which an advertiser pays a publisher (typically a search engine, website owner, or a network of websites) when the ad is clicked. 

Pay per click advertising or paid search advertising can generate traffic right away. It’s simple: Spend enough, get top placement, and potential customers will see your business first.   In November 2018, the average CPC in Google Ads was between $1 and $2 on the search network. The average CPC on the Display Network is under $1. The most expensive keywords in Google Ads and Bing Ads cost $50 or more per click.  Facebook advertising CPC was $1.86 but can be over $5.00 depending on factors from ad quality to the competition.

Businesses and People who seek a better online presence are big target clients or click farms. They use these farms for many reasons such as:

Increase visibility: This is the number one reason why people use Click Farms to increase the visibility of their products and services. Probably due to a new product just released that they want to share on social media who don’t have many followers. 

Low cost: Online social media campaigns aren’t always successful; due to this, people seek click farms. The mysterious lights turn on when they realize fake likes and followers only cost a few hundred dollars. 

Quick Results: The trouble with social media campaigns is that it takes a few weeks to see success. With click farms, you can buy likes and see results instantly. 

How is Click Farms hurting the Email Industry? 

Click Farms opt-in to thousands of legitimate brands via their web forms because they need consistent, good, honest brands to send them emails in their inbox.  To look like a genuine legit human, they click, open and give the appearance of engagement.  Among all the evil actions ClickFarms take, they do need legitimate emails to engage with so the free email inbox providers - Gmail, AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo! - Don’t shut them down.   They need these inboxes to stay valid so they can act like a real person and further their fraudulent activities.    

So why are Click Fraudsters in your email list, because they have to be in there to look legit.  There are hundreds of different click farms out there, and it's not easy to identify when you fall victim to one.  Likely you already have click fraudsters in your list.  These click farms are clicking on your website ads, but they could also be filling out your forms, and are then added into your prospect and customer databases and attached to your CRM initiatives. 

Once they are in your email data and you don’t regularly hygiene check your files, you could be sending to these problem accounts which can affect your deliverability and sender reputation problems.   

The bottom line is if these Fraudsters are in your email data set(s) and you don’t regularly (at least annually) hygiene check your files, you are paying to send to non-humans that will never convert. If these fraudster emails can impact your Sender Reputation, then one of these can ruin your email day in a heartbeat.  

For example, a Direct To Consumer Retailer creates a super engaged list segment they call it “My Best Clickers & Openers.”  These users actively engage in their content every time they send an email campaign.  Now, after reading this article, you start to wonder are these actively engaged users real people or fraudsters? 

This is a common question with many email marketers.  They believe to the core of their being that 100% of these “Clickers” and “Openers” are real people opening, clicking and engaging with their content, links, ads, but they may not be practical.  Fraudsters may not click every link.  They may have cached your email header and email footer from past emails and are now only clicking new content.  Just like a real human would do - Yes, now you are getting it.  So how do you see the difference and how can you tell that you have click farm activity in your data? Check the stats of your clickers, are they buyers?  Have they converted?  Have you tried to force a human behavior - fill out a survey, answer a quiz, solve a puzzle, …   If not, you are most likely dealing with click farms and fraudsters. 

Gmail is very good at finding and terminating them, but click farms are becoming smarter at acting like real humans by entering real sites, signing up and showing Gmail and other ISPs that they are valid emails interested in products and services. 

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