A South African company victimized by click fraud for several years lost its bid to obtain information on suspected scammers after the country’s supreme court upheld a ruling against the company by a lower court. The company is not completely powerless, however. They might still be able to get their hands on the information if they can convince a prosecutor to open a criminal investigation.
Giftrap Trading sells a variety of clothing, gifts, and other items online. For many years, they suspected they were being victimized by click fraud scammers. After enlisting the help of a click fraud protection service, their hunches proved correct. They were being scammed by fraudsters intent on driving up revenue through fraudulent clicks. At the same time, they were depleting the company’s marketing budget.
Seeking Fraudster Information
Utilizing click fraud protection software made it possible for the company and its fraud protection partner to compile a list of IP addresses through which most of the fraud was being perpetrated. Company officials wanted to take further action against the fraudsters, but they needed to know who was behind the IP addresses. So, they went to a number of cell phone providers seeking that information. All their requests were denied.
At least one cell phone provider, Vodacom, said they were more than willing to provide the information if not for a law that strictly prohibits them from doing so. The law in question, known as RICA, only allows companies to divulge protected information if compelled to do so in a criminal case.
Giftwrap Trading’s request had nothing to do with a criminal case. No charges had been filed and no formal investigation was being conducted. As such, the cell phone companies had to refuse information requests. Giftrap Trading went to court hoping to compel cooperation. They lost their case.
They lost on appeal and then again before the South African supreme court. In its ruling, the supreme court acknowledged that the requested information would help Giftrap Trading pursue further action against the fraudsters. But they also confirmed that existing law would not allow revealing such information. The company’s only recourse now is to convince a prosecutor to open a criminal case.
Why the IP Addresses Matter
Why is Giftrap Trading so interested in the information attached to those IP addresses? Because the addresses can lead them directly back to the scammers. According to Fraud Blocker, a company that offers click fraud protection service and software, every internet user is assigned an IP Address with each session. IP addresses are logged and recorded around the clock.
Keeping track of IP addresses allows phone companies, internet service providers, and others to also track online activity. The information can be used to fuel criminal investigations, block illegal content, and more. It can also be utilized by click fraud protection software to lock out fraudsters.
If the software identified a number of suspect IP addresses, an advertiser could then put those addresses on an exclusion list, thereby preventing access to their PPC ads from those addresses. If an advertiser could identify fraudsters based on IP address information, they could take action in civil court.
Why the Information Is Protected
South Africa isn’t alone in protecting such information. The information is considered highly sensitive because it reveals identities, locations, and other things that could potentially compromise a person’s security. In many cases, such information can be obtained from service providers only with some sort of legal compulsion.
Here in the U.S., law enforcement at both the state and federal level can go to court in hopes of compelling service providers to furnish the requested information. A court order establishes that there is a legally justifiable reason for law enforcement to obtain the records. But short of that, service providers are compelled by law to protect ISP and other personal information at all costs.
This is good in the sense that certain types of personal information cannot be freely traded among service providers or sold to advertisers. On the other hand, a law that bars click fraud victims from obtaining information, like the one in South Africa, which ties an advertiser’s hands behind its back.
More Tools to Go After Fraudsters
Click fraud is no laughing matter. Scammers rip off advertisers to the tune of billions of dollars every year. They use tools like click farms, click bots, accidental clicks, and ad stacking to do what they do. Advertisers have very little recourse without criminal investigations and charges. The best they can do is work to prevent click fraud and hope for the best.
If nothing else, the South African case provides clear evidence that advertisers need more tools to go after fraudsters. As long as they are forced to remain on defense, every effort they come up with to stop click fraud will be matched with a new effort by scammers to get around their defenses.
More tools that equipped advertisers to fight back might give scammers cause to reconsider. Maybe it would be in our best interests to change the law so that service providers could release protected information with enough evidence that click fraud has taken place. That would allow advertisers to file civil lawsuits which, in turn, could spur criminal charges.
Click Fraud Is a Crime
The thing to remember is that click fraud isn’t just inconvenient to advertisers. It is a crime. It is a crime that involves stealing from advertisers by intentionally clicking on ads so as to drive up revenue. If a company has proof it has been victimized by fraudsters, then it should not be so difficult to get a criminal investigation launched. All an advertiser would need is access to IP address information to get the ball rolling.
South African fraudsters won this round. Maybe the next round will go in favor of online advertisers. But if not, the scammers will only be encouraged to keep doing what they are already doing quite successfully.