But an investigation by BuzzFeed News reveals that these seemingly separate apps and companies are today part of a massive, sophisticated digital advertising fraud scheme involving more than 125 Android apps and websites connected to a network of front and shell companies in Cyprus, Malta, British Virgin Islands, Croatia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. More than a dozen of the affected apps are targeted at kids or teens, and a person involved in the scheme estimates it has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from brands whose ads were shown to bots instead of actual humans.
One way the fraudsters find apps for their scheme is to acquire legitimate apps through We Purchase Apps and transfer them to shell companies. They then capture the behavior of the app’s human users and program a vast network of bots to mimic it, according to analysis from Protected Media
, a cybersecurity and fraud detection firm that analyzed the apps and websites at BuzzFeed News’ request.
This means a significant portion of the millions of Android phone owners who downloaded these apps were secretly tracked as they scrolled and clicked inside the application. By copying actual user behavior in the apps, the fraudsters were able to generate fake traffic that bypassed major fraud detection systems.
“This is not your run-of-the-mill fraud scheme,” said Asaf Greiner, the CEO of Protected Media. “We are impressed with the complex methods that were used to build this fraud scheme and what’s equally as impressive is the ability of criminals to remain under the radar.”