Using Enforcement to Crack Down on ‘Click Fraud’

Posted by Tim Cranton
Associate General Counsel 

I’ve led Microsoft’s Internet Safety Enforcement Team for a decade now. In that time, we’ve partnered with government and industry on a variety of preventive, investigative and enforcement efforts to stymie cybercrime and online fraud. As these threats have evolved – growing in complexity and sophistication – so too has our team.  We strive to anticipate the next wave of threats to our customers and to Internet users more generally. 

Most of my team’s work to date has focused on “classic” cybercrime issues such as child protection, security, malicious code and online fraud.  Today, we are expanding that effort to tackle a less traditional but increasingly crucial area for cybercrime enforcement: Click fraud and related threats to the online advertising community. 

Earlier today, after a thorough investigation, Microsoft filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington outlining a massive click fraud scheme believed to have impacted Microsoft’s advertising platform and potentially other networks.  The case is Microsoft v. Lam, et. al., case number 09-cv-0815. 

Click fraud occurs when a person, automated script or computer program imitates a legitimate Web surfer and clicks on an online ad for the purpose of generating a fraudulent “charge-per-click” without having actual interest in the target of the ad’s link. 

Click FraudIn this case, as our complaint alleges, Microsoft gathered substantial evidence that a handful of individuals were likely responsible for these click fraud attacks, which affected online advertisements related to auto insurance and the online role playing game, World of Warcraft. 

Once we became aware of the click fraud attacks we quickly took action to address any impact on advertisers and to enhance safeguards to further protect our network.  Today’s suit seeks an injunction to help stop this activity and to recover damages. 

Consumers and businesses around the world rely on free Internet services and content funded and powered by advertising.  Indeed, just last week the Interactive Advertising Bureau released a study that found interactive advertising is responsible for $300 billion of economic activity annually and has created 3.1 million U.S. jobs.  Given the sector’s size and strategic importance, it is critically important for the industry to continue working together to help combat fraud against online advertisers and promote a healthy marketplace for online advertising and Internet services to thrive.  This marketplace will help fuel technology advancements worldwide and provide a key element in economic recovery and growth in the years ahead. 

The vast majority of online advertising activity is legitimate, of course.  But like most online activities, there are areas where fraud can be found.  The online advertising industry has been making strides in this area for years, implementing technology, best practices and techniques to help address issues such as click fraud.  Today’s action is one more step to expand that effort by utilizing the legal system to combat click fraud. Enforcement can play a critical safety role, supplementing technology and industry best practices, by using lawsuits and criminal prosecutions to stop the most egregious violators and hold them accountable for the fraud they commit.