AdSecure's Violations Report 2021

How AdSecure stopped Malvertising

For this report AdSecure analysed over 200 million ad campaigns globally between 1st January to 31st December 2021. These findings provide insights into cybercriminal malvertising behaviour during 2021: When did they deliver their attacks? What were their malicious weapons of choice? What did AdSecure’s detections reveal? 

1 in 20 scans reveal 4 or more violations detected in a single ad campaign

24.21% of scans detected 1 violation +8.9% increase comparing Q1/2 to Q3/4
10.21% of scans detected 2 violations +12.3% increase comparing Q1/2 to Q3/4
6.85% of scans detected 3 violations -9.3% decrease comparing Q1/2 to Q3/4
5.05% of scans detected 4 or more violations +19.3% increase comparing Q1/2 to Q3/4

AdSecure's Violations Report 2021

Insight: Scans of ad campaigns showing 4 or more violations increase by +19.3% comparing Q1/2 to Q3/4. By adding several different violations in one ad campaign, it allows malvertisers to be much more effective in their exploitation attempts. Some common tactics they use are a chain of different violations including: the ad creative, the landing page, url, redirection path/chain, hidden code within in iframes. Their aim is the hope that even if one or two violations get discovered, others can still slip through undetected.

Overview of the percentage of violations

AdSecure categorizes violations into specific groups. In the pie chart below you can see the overview percentage of each category. 

AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Now we will go into more detail for each category

36.7% of scans detected User Experience Violations.  

User Experience Violations directly affect the end user browsing experience with annoying or malicious activity within ad campaigns. Overall just over one third of all scans detected this type of violation. Lets look at how those User Experince violations were discovered each quarter: 

User experience violations AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Looking at each quarter, overall this category was more or less consistent throughout the year with a slight drop in Q4. Now let's look at the top 5 User Experience Violations as a percentage:

AdSecure's Violations report 2021

36.4% LandingPage Errors show the end user an alert that has identified a broken/dead link (404 Error, 5xx, timeouts, etc.) These can be damaging for a few reasons: 

  • The end user may think that clicking on ads on the website where the violation happened could lead to them feeling unsafe when browsing the website
  • The advertiser, who may be legitimate, will not see any conversions for their offer, because of the defective link
  • If an ad network is serving the ad on the publishers site, it may not have checked the full ad campaign flow which could cause issues with their publisher client

23.7% Permission Notification is a permission request to send notifications to the user, examples are:

  • Camera: A permission request to access the user’s camera.
  • Microphone: A permission request to access the user’s microphone.
  • Geolocation: A permission request to track the user's location.
  • Clipboard: A permission request to copy text to the clipboard.
  • General: A permission request to send notifications to the user.

While these Permissions are common practice when an end user downloads an app for example, they are very annoying for the end user if they have just clicked on an ad. Additionally cybercriminals use them in the hope that the end user clicks to accept and then the bad actors can access personal files and data from the end user's device.

19.6% JS Alert on entry/exit are Javascript alerts that pop up without user interaction when entering a website or when the user wants to close the active tab. Javascript dialogue boxes can negatively affect a user's browsing experience as they often appear as warning messages or confirmation dialogues asking for the user's consent on specific options. These Javascript dialogues themselves are not harmful, however, some bad actors use this tactic and insert malicious code to infect unsuspecting user's devices, which can be cause serious security threats to the user if they click or input any information into the dialogue boxes.

17.3% Back Button Hijack this is hidden inside ads where a script that allows the malvertiser to manipulate the user's device browser history. Usually it consists of inserting one or several pages in the browser history, which would prevent the user from going back to the previous page he was coming from. This abusive behavior of hijacking a user's browsing history is considered a violation by Google. If advertisers maliciously insert ads between the current website and the previous page, the users might be exposed to unsafe ads or unwanted content.

3% Auto Redirect uses a script within the ad causing a web page to break out of any frames "framing" it, resulting in automatically redirecting the visitor to another website/page. Some cybercriminals use auto-redirects for phishing scams to trick internet users and make them hand over their usernames, passwords or personal information. They can also redirect users to malicious websites and trigger the installation of malware or harmful software to infect their devices. 

User Experience Violations peak activity

AdSecure detects 15 different User Experience Violations and there were some interesting trends with these violations outside of the top 5, here are two examples:

Auto Pops are ads that automatically trigger pops (both pop-ups and tabunders) without user interaction. Google penalizes websites that show Pop-ups to end users. In Q3 there was a massive detection spike with cybercriminals concentrating a lot of activity using this violation.

AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Auto Downloads are ads that automatically download a file/executable application without user interaction which can contain harmful files, viruses, or malware that are quietly installed on the user’s device. This can be dangerous as most of the time the user is totally unaware. In Q2 & Q3 our detections show that cybercriminals drastically increased their activity with this violation compared to the other quarters.

AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Insight: Each User Experience violation is considered by Google to be non-compliant. For repeated violations it can affect a Publisher’s Google ranking and come with a risk of being blocked by the world’s biggest browser Chrome. For ad networks, allowing these violations to reach end users will affect relationships with any Publishers affected on their ad network. And of course, these are all considered as annoyances or attacks by an end user, ruining that user’s browsing experience on the website where they encountered them.

22.8% of scans detected User Security Violations.

User Security Violations harm the user’s online safety by trying to steal personal data or exploit them financially. Lets look at how many of the User Security violations were spread out over each quarter:

User security violations AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Looking at each quarter, Q1 showed the lowest detections, before cyber criminals boosted their activity for these violations from Q2 onwards, where they remained consitent at around 1 in 4 of all detections.  Now let's look at the top 5 User Security violations as a percentage:

AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Malicious URL accounting for 7 out of 10 of all User Security violations detected. Malicious URLs host unsolicited content (spam, phishing, drive-by exploits, etc.) and lure unsuspecting users to become victims of scams (monetary loss, theft of private information, and malware  installation). Once an ad is clicked that contains a Malicious URL, the end user is redirected to a landing page and becomes exposed to whatever the malvertisers have in store. Perhaps this violation is one of the easiest for bad actors to use because if an ad network or publisher’s compliance team don’t regularly check ad campaign flows after they have launched, cybercriminals change the url of a previously approved campaign to set their exploitative measures in place. 

SSL non-compliant came in second at 28%. These are ads that contain at least one unsecured item in the chain of resources, it could be unsafe, no https, mixed content, ssl version or cipher mismatch. If an ad's link is using an unsecure connection or http, it means that it is not encrypted and sensitive data can be compromised. Google automatically blocks unsecure connections and flags it as unsafe to the end user, which can damage the reputation of the website that hosted the ad reputation with the end user. 

For publishers and ad networks, identifying and eliminating unsecure HTTP resources isn’t just a best practice when it comes to providing security to users, but also for securing revenue and making sure each running campaign is optimised for user engagement for a successful conversion. 

1 in 50 User Security violations detected were for Drive by crypto currency mining. Clicking on an ad of this type activates a piece of javascript code to mine different crypto currencies directly through the visitor's browser, without the user knowing, basically stealing the users bandwidth and processing power on behalf of the cybercriminal. AdSecure’s detection revealed that there was a large peak in Q2 for this violation, but a significant drop in Q4. 

AdSecure's Violations report 2021

One of the reasons for this could be related to countries banning crypto currencies. China made big headlines when it banned them in 2021, in fact 42 other countries including Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Bahrain and Bolivia have implicitly banned digital currencies by putting restrictions on the ability for banks to deal with crypto, or prohibiting crypto currency exchanges, a summary report by the Law Library of Congress was published in November. 

User Security Violations peak activity

Looking closely at the 2021 quarters we can see how cyber criminals switched to and from different types of violations throughout 2021. This demonstrates the effectiveness of AdSecure, because once an ad network or publisher has detected violations with AdScure’s solutions and removed the offending campaigns, those bad actors tried with another tactic in the hope of avoiding detection, luckily AdSecure detected the fact that cyber criminals has switched tactics and ad networks and publishers were able to stop these malvertising campaigns.  Please note Q4 had no significant peak for any particular User Security violation.

AdSecure's Violations report 2021 Browser Locker, Malware, AdWare

Browser Locker peaked in Q1 at 80% of all Browser Locker violations detected during 2021. This violation runs a script in the web browser and its main purpose is to disable any form of action that can close the browser – such as clicking the close button and pressing certain shortcut keys. All attempts to close the browser will result in a warning message box

AdWare peaked in Q2 at 60.6%. Adware is software that downloads or displays unwanted ads when a user is online, it collects marketing data and other information without the user's knowledge, or redirects search requests to certain advertising websites.

Malware distribution had a big peak in Q3 at 76%. Malware is a general category of malicious code that includes viruses, worms and Trojan horse programs. It is used to disrupt computer operations, gather sensitive information, gain access to private computer systems, or display unwanted advertising. 

15.5% of scans detected non-safe adult content.

AdSecure identifies ad creatives that feature Non-safe adult content/Not Suitable For Work (NSFW) images or videos. The definition means content that contains elements such as photos/cartoons showing nudity or sexual activities. AdSecure found that one sixth of the total scans in 2021 detected adult content in ad creatives. Users do not want to be accidentally exposed to any sexually explicit content within ad creatives or on an ad’s landing page. This is doubly important for the website that is displaying those ads, because the website does not contain any adult content, but unscrupulous advertisers might use this kind of imagery. Therefore, filtering out unsafe adult content is very important for publishers who want to keep their users happily engaged with their websites. Currently several countries including the UK, Australia, Germany, France and Ireland are developing age restriction laws for online content so that under 18’s are not exposed to adult content online, Therefore it is imperative for publisher sites that are open to all age groups to use AdSecure's Ads Classification feature in order to detect and then block ad creatives that feature adult content. As you can see this violation increased up to Q3 or 2021:

non safe adult content AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Insight: Publisher sites could be breaking the law in certain GEOs, for example 3.4% of detections for adult content were detected in strict Muslim countries in the Middle East including Algeria, Saudia Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Tunisia.

12.7% of scans detected Suspicious TLDs.

Suspicious TLDs are top-level domains frequently used by cybercriminals who are setting up hosts for spam e-mailing, scams, shady software downloads, malware distribution, botnet operations and "phishing" attacks, or other suspicious content.  Looking at each quarter:

Suspicious TLDs AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Although more or less constant throughout 2021 except for a 3% rise in Q3. Please note, that it may not be necessary to block all domains flagged as suspicious, it is our policy at AdSecure to inform clients of the URLs potential relationship to malicious activity so that clients can make an informed decision.

“10.7% of scans detected Threat Intelligence.”

One in ten scans triggered AdSecure’s Threat Intelligence. This detection reports if the URL was flagged for a violation in any AdSecure analysis in the previous 30 days. Looking quarter by quarter, in Q3 there was a 10% increase comparing Q1 & Q2:

Threat Intelligence AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Threat Intelligence assesses the probability and the severity of the campaign’s URLs threat by rating it’s risk from 1 (low) to 5 (severe) acting as the first line of defense, eliminating potential risks before going live.  Which is a highly useful tool for publishers and ad networks.

“1.6% of scans detected poor IAB Standard Ad Quality.”

AdSecure has an IAB Standards detection tool that scans ads to verify that the ads are aligned with the industry standard IAB recommendations. Looking quarter by quarter:

IAB Standards AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Thanks to this detection, clients have seen a substantial drop in IAB violations in Q3 & Q4. Compared to Q1 & Q2 where 1 in 40 campaigns were not aligned with the IAB, by the last two quarters of the year this had dropped significantly. This is important because, by using this AdSecure detection, publishers and ad networks discovered and then advised advertiser clients of the need to align with IAB standards.

IAB standards lead to higher levels of user engagement and overall conversion, meaning that these standards play a key role in maximising revenue for each campaign. For publishers, website performance can be heavily impacted if industry advertising standards are not met. It creates a bad user experience and end users are less likely to click on the ad, affecting publisher eCPMs. Additionally, now that Google has added web content performance into it’s SEO rankings, monitoring for low performing ad content can help publishers ensure they avoid SEO penalties in the future. 

Here is a breakdown of the percentage split of the 4 IAB violations:

AdSecure's Violations report 2021

Dimensions were the biggest issue with almost half of all IAB violations, it is important that the standard recommended display ad sizes are used for ad creatives, so that the end user sees a good image or they are unlikely to click on the ad. 

How Malvertisers attacked specific GEOs

AdSecure has previously analysed data from 2021 looking at some of the most important GEOs that need protection. Did you know that India has become one of the most popular Geolocations for Malvertisers to target. Check out the 5 key insights related to ad security activity and ad quality issues in the UK in Q3 & Q4. The US is the most targeted GEO by malvertisers, Discover what tactics malvertisers used to target the most popular GEO for bad actors: The United States.

How AdSecure detects violations

AdSecure's ad verification system is built around a custom-made crawler capable of simulating a wide array of devices and locations. It allows the users to automatically scan ad tags and site pages for all kinds of malvertising and non-compliant issues in real-time. Unlike older solutions, AdSecure's crawler is powered by Chrome, and built on the same modern browser technology that powers today’s online world. This technology interacts with digital ads as an end user would to acertain exactly what the end user will be exposed to throughout the entire flow of the ad campaign.

As a comprehensive, modern and 360 degree ad quality solution, AdSecure provides easy pre-flight campaign verification, post flight ad campaign scans while they are running, ad performance monitoring through our IAB Standards compliance widget, and monitoring of the visual content of ads using our Ads Classification modules. 

For further information please visit https://www.adsecure.com.