U.S. Markets close in 4 hrs 12 mins

How a toothbrush news site can get more visits than the Economist: More on the botnet scam

Jeff John Roberts

A larger picture is emerging about an online advertising scam that is reportedly soaking major brands like McDonald’s and Disney for $6 million a month. The scam, which has rattled publishers and the ad industry, came to light on Tuesday after a London analytics firm revealed that a network of zombie computers tricked the brands into paying to show their ads to robots.

It has also resulted in “toothbrushing.net,” a little-known site with oral hygiene news, likely racking up more visitors than famous publishers like The Economist.

Here are some more details, based on sources close to the investigation and other reports, about who is affected  and the scale of the botnet.

Millions of “readers” for a toothbrush news site

The “about” section of Toothbrushing.net says the site is dedicated to “toothbrush enthusiasts” and promises the “latest on dental news.” According to a source, the site is displaying 20 million to 25 million ad impressions a month. Since the site shows four ad slots on every webpage, this loosely translates to at least 5 million visitors. Nearly all of these visitors were bots not people but, for marketers, the effect is the same — they pay either way. (The ad slots were empty when I checked today  – see the screenshot at right).

To put the traffic of the toothbrush news site in perspective, consider that a site like the Economist had 1.7 million unique visitors in December and the New Yorker had 3.1 million. These figures refer to unique visitors so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison but, using this crude calculation, there’s a good chance Toothbrushing.net did better than both of them.

And it’s not just the toothbrush site. Other obscure sites touched by bot networks, including Sodabottle.com and Techrockstar.com, likewise served up 20 million to 25 million ads in a month. According to Spider, the analytics firm that discovered the scam, there are at least 202 such sites tied to one bot network called Chameleon. Nearly all consist of little more than a smattering of cheap content you could pay a high-school student to write.

There is also the egregious example of Directorslive.com, an obscure movie site that AdWeek reports enjoys 326 million monthly pageviews. According to a source, the only site on the web to sell more ad impressions is Facebook.

Who is affected and who is responsible

The list of advertisers that paid to appear on botnet sites include dozens of major brands, and cover a wide range of sectors such as: retail (Snickers, Ziploc, Petco); finance (Citi, Chase, Amex); telecom (AT&T, Time Warner, Sprint); automotive: (Dodge, Ford, Jaguar); services (Zipcar, Seamless).

While advertisers are the direct victims of the botnet, major web publishers are also harmed because marketers lose confidence in the integrity of display advertising and prices drop accordingly.

So who is to blame? An advertising source provided six ad networks it regarded as among those it believed to be “problematic” because their sites receive suspicious traffic. Here are their names along with an example of a suspect websites they control:  Alphabird (Driverswhoknow.com); Digimogul (USBuildingDigest.com); Forward Health (Womenshealthbase.com); Precision Media (Toothbrushing.net); HiFi network (Dailyfreshies.com); Relevad Corporation (FFog.net).

(Clarification: the CEO of Spider.io says not all of these networks received visits from the Chameleon botnet but that they may be receiving traffic from other botnets or other “nefarious” sources).

The CEO of Digimogul told AdWeek that allegations of a connection to the bot network were “silly” and that “everything is by the book.” Meanwhile, executives from Alphabird told me that they were surprised by the discovery of the botnet and that they’re working with the London analytics firm to get to the bottom of it. Spider.io’s CEO says that AlphaBird has reached out “via LinkedIn” but that the companies are not working together.

I asked the COO of Alphabird, Justin Manes, how a company staffed by a sophisticated technology and marketing team could possibly remain unaware of the suspicious traffic — especially when the traffic delivered a direct financial benefit to them. Manes responded that Alpahbird works with numerous aggregators to buy website visitors and that the corrupted traffic must have slipped in this way; he also declined to say where the company bought the traffic. As for the company’s prospects in light of the botnet scandal, Manes said he hopes that people will come to see Alphaird was duped too; he also hopes the experience will strengthen the company’s ability to sell tagging and tracking tools in the future.

Fixing the problem: better tools or law enforcement?

The existence of a bot network that hijacks thousands of American computers to perpetrate millions of dollars in fraud appears to be a serious matter. But is it serious enough for a criminal investigation?

I called the Cyber-Crimes division of the FBI to ask if it is investigated this type of activity. A spokesperson provided this response:

“While I cannot comment about the botnet you’re writing about, the FBI’s Cyber Division does investigate botnets. We have had operational successes disrupting botnets used by individuals as well as groups that use malicious advertising as part of their schemes.” The spokesperson also referred to a 2011 investigation known as “Operation Ghostclick” in which the FBI arrested six people for using computers to manipulate the online ad industry.

It’s unclear at this point if the discovery of the new botnet will lead to any criminal investigations. In the meantime, brands and publishers will likely look to self-help solutions to weed out the fraud. There is some encouraging news on this front, as metrics companies like comScore are developing measurement tools to identify and screen-out what the company calls “non-human traffic.”

This story was updated on March 20 at 10pm and March 21 at 11am to provide clarifications from Spider.io’s CEO Douglas de Jager.

(Image by qvist via Shutterstock)




More From paidContent.org


  • US bank halts NRA credit card, car rental firm ends discount
    Business
    Associated Press

    US bank halts NRA credit card, car rental firm ends discount

    The nation's largest privately-owned bank holding company and a major car rental chain said Thursday they will stop promotions aimed at National Rifle Association members. The Nebraska-based First National Bank of Omaha will not renew its contract to issue the group's NRA Visa Card, spokesman Kevin Langin said in a statement. "Customer feedback has caused us to review our relationship with the NRA," Langin said.

  • In 1961 a Plane Crash Killed the Entire U.S. Figure Skating Team. Here's How the Tragic Legacy Lives On
    News
    Time

    In 1961 a Plane Crash Killed the Entire U.S. Figure Skating Team. Here's How the Tragic Legacy Lives On

    Fifty-seven years ago this month, the U.S. figure skating team was devastated by a plane crash. The star-spangled athletes were on their way to compete at the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, where they were expected to score medals and launch into preparations for the 1964 Olympics. The tragedy was mourned across the nation and shattered the figure skating world, which the U.S. had dominated for over a decade.

  • Broward Sheriff Deputy Resigns After Video Shows He Avoided School Shooting
    News
    Time

    Broward Sheriff Deputy Resigns After Video Shows He Avoided School Shooting

    The Broward sheriff deputy assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School resigned on Thursday, about a week after a school shooting there that left 17 people dead. Scot Peterson, a school resource officer from the Broward County Sheriff’s office, waited outside the school building without ever going inside, sheriff Scott Israel said during a news conference on Thursday. “What I saw was a deputy arrive at the west side of building 12, take up a position, and he never went in,” Israel said Thursday, referring to the school building where the shooter went on his rampage.

  • Hyundai Overtakes Its German Luxury Car Rivals
    Business
    Bloomberg Video

    Hyundai Overtakes Its German Luxury Car Rivals

    Feb.22 -- In its debut year, Hyundai’s luxury line bumped Volkswagen AG’s Audi from top billing to the No. 2 spot, with premium mainstays BMW, Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus and VW’s Porsche rounding out the top five. Bloomberg's Dave McCombs reports on "Bloomberg Daybreak: Asia."

  • Girl injured by dog during boarding for Southwest flight
    News
    Associated Press

    Girl injured by dog during boarding for Southwest flight

    Southwest Airlines said Thursday that a dog injured a child as passengers boarded a flight in Phoenix, an event likely to fuel the debate over the growing number of emotional-support animals on planes. A passenger on Wednesday's Phoenix-to-Portland, Oregon, flight tweeted that a dog bit a girl as she approached it, and that she screamed and cried. Southwest said the dog's teeth "scraped a child's forehead" and paramedics checked the girl, who appeared to be 6 or 7 years old.

  • In One Tweet, Kylie Jenner Wiped Out $1.3 Billion of Snap’s Market Value
    Business
    Bloomberg

    In One Tweet, Kylie Jenner Wiped Out $1.3 Billion of Snap’s Market Value

    Shares of the Snapchat parent company sank 6.1 percent on Thursday, wiping out $1.3 billion in market value, on the heels of a tweet on Wednesday from Kylie Jenner, who said she doesn’t open the app anymore. Jenner’s tweet was followed late Thursday by one from Maybelline New York, asking its followers if it should stay on the Snapchat platform. The beauty-product brand owned by Paris-based L’Oreal SA said its “Snapchat views have dropped dramatically,” but it still wanted to connect with its followers.

  • 'We've Been Waiting for You.' Barack Obama Praises the Teen Shooting Survivors Fighting for Gun Control
    Politics
    Time

    'We've Been Waiting for You.' Barack Obama Praises the Teen Shooting Survivors Fighting for Gun Control

    Former President Barack Obama is throwing his support behind the teenagers vocally advocating for stricter gun control in the wake of the deadly Florida school shooting last week. “Young people have helped lead all our great movements,” Obama said on Twitter. Obama’s show of support came shortly before Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s Executive Vice President, told the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday that politicians and the media are exploiting the Florida school shooting to expand gun control and ultimately abolish the second amendment.

  • New Ferrari looks a big step up, says Vettel
    Sports
    Reuters

    New Ferrari looks a big step up, says Vettel

    Ferrari's new SF71H Formula One car already looks a big step up from last year's before it has turned a wheel in anger, four times world champion Sebastian Vettel said at Thursday's unveiling. Vettel won five races last season but finished runner-up to Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, who is now also a four times world champion.

  • MGM Resorts Struggles on the Las Vegas Strip
    Business
    Motley Fool

    MGM Resorts Struggles on the Las Vegas Strip

    Revenue was up 5.5% for MGM Resorts to $2.6 billion and net income jumped from $24.7 million a year ago to $1.4 billion, or $2.42 per share. Digging into the numbers, you get a picture of why MGM Resorts had an underwhelming quarter in what seemed to be a favorable operating environment. Revenue per available room was down 4.9% on the Las Vegas Strip, driven by high-end resorts like Bellagio, MGM Grand Las Vegas, and Mandalay Bay all having both lower average daily room rates and lower occupancy versus a year ago.

  • Canada's Trudeau spurs criticism, raises eyebrows on India trip
    World
    Reuters

    Canada's Trudeau spurs criticism, raises eyebrows on India trip

    By Andrea Hopkins and Nidhi Verma OTTAWA/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Canadian and Indian officials scrambled on Thursday to explain how a convicted Sikh extremist was invited to a New Delhi reception for Justin Trudeau, the latest misstep in the Canadian prime minister's bumpy eight-day trip to India. The tour has been overshadowed by suggestions of a lukewarm reception by the government and a series of photo ops featuring the Trudeau family in coordinated Indian attire that have raised eyebrows in both countries. The latest flashpoint, a swiftly cancelled invitation by the Canadian delegation to Jaspal Atwal -- convicted in 1986 of the attempted murder of an Indian politician visiting Canada -- came just days after Trudeau had assured his hosts he would not support anyone trying to revive a separatist movement in India.

  • These Antidepressants Are Most Effective, Study Says
    Health
    Time

    These Antidepressants Are Most Effective, Study Says

    Millions of people take antidepressants for depression. On Wednesday, a large new study provides evidence that antidepressants are more effective than placebo at treating acute depression in adults. The study, published in the journal The Lancet, looked at the published data from 522 randomized controlled trials testing 21 different types of antidepressants.

  • Billy Graham Was One of America's Richest Pastors. Here's What We Know About His Money
    Entertainment
    Yahoo Finance Video

    Billy Graham Was One of America's Richest Pastors. Here's What We Know About His Money

    Rev. Billy Graham, the famous evangelist who preached to full stadiums and advised presidents, died at the age of 99 on Wednesday. Billy Graham was also a wealthy man, leaving behind a fortune of real estate holdings, book royalties, and more—though biographers say his humility made him turn down opportunities to earn much more. Here’s what we know about Billy Graham’s money.

  • North Korea is sending the suspected mastermind of deadly attacks on the South to the Olympics
    World
    Quartz

    North Korea is sending the suspected mastermind of deadly attacks on the South to the Olympics

    Having already dispatched leader Kim Jong-un’s sister to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, North Korea is sending another big gun to mark the closing of the games. South Korean officials said today (Feb. 22) that 72-year-old general Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the central committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea, will lead an eight-member delegation to Pyeongchang for a three-day visit on Sunday (Feb. 25). Kim’s visit, the latest in a series of diplomatic efforts to repair relations between Pyongyang and Seoul, was met by strong protests from opposition parties in South Korea. Kim, who previously headed the North’s reconnaissance bureau, is suspected in South Korea

  • Warren Buffett has enough firepower to do a $160 billion deal this year
    Finance
    Business Insider

    Warren Buffett has enough firepower to do a $160 billion deal this year

    Warren Buffett's firm Berkshire Hathaway is sitting on a record amount of cash. Berkshire Hathaway has never had this much cash, so naturally people have wide-ranging ideas for how the Warren Buffett-led juggernaut may use it. The bank arrives at that figure by factoring in the record $109 billion of cash Berkshire had on hand at the start of February, and combining it with the company's strong free cash flow.

  • Business
    TheStreet.com

    UTX Stock Gains as CEO Proposes Selling $107 Billion Company for $81 Billion

    United Technologies shares soared today after CEO Gregory Hayes said the sprawling industrial conglomerate might be worth more dead than alive. Hayes explained the parameters of the proposed execution, which turns out to be more along the lines of drawing and quartering, in a presentation he gave at the Barclays Industrial Select Conference in Miami. "Is UTC better off in three separate businesses?," Hayes asked.

  • Football Players Carry Casket at Funeral for 'Hero' Coach Killed in Florida School Shooting
    News
    Time

    Football Players Carry Casket at Funeral for 'Hero' Coach Killed in Florida School Shooting

    When Joe LaGuardia heard there had been a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, he said he knew in the pit of his stomach that his longtime friend Aaron Feis was doing everything possible to save students. LaGuardia was heading to an Ash Wednesday service when he got news of the shooting. Feis, an assistant football coach and security guard at the school of 3,200 students on the edge of the Florida Everglades, was among 17 gunned down by a former student who police said returned to the school with an AR 15 assault-style rifle just before dismissal on Feb. 14.

  • Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies Are Plunging Today -- Why?
    Business
    Motley Fool

    Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies Are Plunging Today -- Why?

    Bitcoin (BTC-USD) is down 10% on Wednesday, pumping the brakes on the digital currency's impressive rally over the past couple of weeks. Most other cryptocurrencies are down as well, although there really isn't any bad news that appears to be causing

  • These Surprising Countries Now Have the Most Powerful Passport in the World
    World
    Time

    These Surprising Countries Now Have the Most Powerful Passport in the World

    For years, European countries have commanded the most powerful passports in the world. Now, that title belongs to Asia. The Passport Index, which ranks nations based on travel freedom and visa requirements upon entering foreign countries, declared Tuesday that South Korea now wields the world’s most powerful passport, joining Asian city-state Singapore atop the rankings. South Korea and Singapore now outrank Germany’s passport, which in recent times topped the charts.

  • This Figure Skater Is Basically a One-Woman AC/DC Tribute Band. The Internet Is Rocking Out Accordingly.
    Celebrity
    Time

    This Figure Skater Is Basically a One-Woman AC/DC Tribute Band. The Internet Is Rocking Out Accordingly.

    Ivett Toth sure knows how to stand out in a crowded field of female figure skaters for the 2018 Winter Olympics. During the women’s figure skating short programs on Tuesday night in PyeongChang, Hungary’s Toth surprised crowds — both at the rink and around the world — with her unorthodox choice of music. Toth may be just 19, but there’s no doubt her clear love for the classic rock band transcends generational taste.

  • Trade of the Day: Boeing Co Stock Could Take Off Again Soon
    Business
    InvestorPlace

    Trade of the Day: Boeing Co Stock Could Take Off Again Soon

    Shares of Boeing Co (NYSE:BA) have spent the better part of the past six weeks consolidating sideways after a strong 2017 and a vertical leap to kick off 2018. Traders and active investors would be wise to keep a close eye on BA stock for another leg

  • Business
    CNBC

    Amazon and Netflix just hit all-time highs. Here’s which one is a better buy

    Shares of tech behemoths Amazon AMZN and Netflix NFLX are surging this year. While both stocks are solid growth names, Netflix looks attractive over Amazon, said Mark Tepper, president and CEO of Strategic Wealth Partners. Netflix, on the other hand, could easily raise prices by 50 percent, and nobody would bat an eye, so we would take Netflix at this level," he said.

  • U.S. Courts Jailing Thousands over Civil Debts 'Without Due Process,' ACLU Says
    News
    Newsweek

    U.S. Courts Jailing Thousands over Civil Debts 'Without Due Process,' ACLU Says

    Thousands of people are being arrested and jailed each year because of outstanding civil debts, despite the United States banning debtors' prisons nearly 200 years ago, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

  • Why Chesapeake Energy Corporation Stock Is Rocketing Today
    Business
    Motley Fool

    Why Chesapeake Energy Corporation Stock Is Rocketing Today

    Shares of Chesapeake Energy Corporation (NYSE: CHK) are soaring today, up nearly 15% as of 10:00 a.m. EST, after the company reported a strong fourth quarter and a brighter outlook for this year. Chesapeake Energy reported adjusted net income of $314 million, or $0.30 per share, in the fourth quarter. Fueling Chesapeake's stronger-than-expected results was a combination of an 11% increase in oil output, an 18% decline in operating expenses, and an improvement in oil and gas prices.

  • Better Buy: Novavax, Inc. vs. Pfizer Inc.
    Business
    Motley Fool

    Better Buy: Novavax, Inc. vs. Pfizer Inc.

    Would you be better off buying Novavax, Inc. (NASDAQ: NVAX) stock or Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) stock? The answer to that question so far in 2018 is Novavax. The clinical-stage biotech's share price has soared over the last couple of months, while Pfizer stock hasn't moved very much.

  • Halo raises hackles as Mercedes present their new 'diva'
    Sports
    Reuters

    Halo raises hackles as Mercedes present their new 'diva'

    By Alan Baldwin SILVERSTONE, England (Reuters) - Formula One champions Mercedes launched their 2018 car on Thursday with team boss Toto Wolff hoping it proved less temperamental than the last one and admitting he would like to attack it with a chainsaw. The Austrian, whose team have won the last four championships and are favorites for a fifth with Lewis Hamilton, is no fan of the mandatory new 'halo' head protection device. "I'm not impressed with the whole (halo) thing," Wolff told reporters at a chilly Silverstone circuit after Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas had given the silver W09 its track debut.