Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) on tackling criminal activity in digital advertising


Cyber crime ()


It is believed that advertisers are now collectively losing billions of dollars each year through global criminal activities including everything from ad-fraud, to malware, to piracy. In 2015, the US Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) estimated that fraudulent impressions, infringed content, and ‘malvertising’ was costing the digital marketers $8.2 billion annually in the US alone. The issue is being tackled head on by a collection of experienced industry professionals making up the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG).  

“Advertisers lose billions each year to criminal activity, and ad-fraud makes up over half of it,” says Nick Stringer, VP of global engagement and operations for TAG and previously Director of Regulatory Affairs from 2008 – 2015 at the Internet Advertising Bureau UK (IAB UK). “By advertising fraud, we mean invalid traffic: any clicks, impressions, conversions, etc. that weren’t made by humans but may artificially inflate an advertiser’s costs, a publisher’s earnings, or a fraudster’s takings. As a result of these activities, advertisers may end up paying a portion of their ad campaign money to criminals who generate ad impressions that are never seen by real legitimate people.” 


Nick Stringer ()

Nick Stringer


Established in the US in 2014, the TAG programme has become increasingly successful in reducing fraudulent invalid traffic in the digital advertising supply chain over the years. A 2017 US study carried out by The 614 Group, found that the use of TAG Certified distribution channels for digital advertising reduced the level of fraud to 1.48 pere cent – an 83 per cent reduction over industry averages.

“TAG has a set of standards – underpinned by market trading seals – for each area of criminal activity that it focuses on. Businesses expect their content to be viewed by legitimate people with the potential to buy their products or services. But criminal organisations have infiltrated the digital advertising supply chain with malware and other methods to generate invalid traffic and defraud legitimate participants.”

“There is also a dedicated Certified Against Fraud programme to provide companies with a way to effectively fight invalid traffic, and more than 85 companies across the globe have achieved the Certified Against Fraud Seal to date. Requirements to achieve the seal include complying with the Media Rating Council’s (MRC) Invalid Traffic Guidelines, deploying technological tools to filter domain threats and data centre IP threats, as well as transparency tools like Ads.txt and TAG’s Payment ID System to create public records of authorized digital sellers and trusted chains of custody for transactions.” 

The programme is supported by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) in its recent Global Media Charter. In an industry where the benefits of increased co-operation amongst practitioners have long since been emphasised by FIPP and others, TAG offers a co-ordinated approach. It is working towards a harmonised approach across markets. But the growing prominence of digital advertising brings with it a whole new set of challenges, not least in the form of harmful malware software. 

“Malware, or ‘malvertising’, is a serious issue which needs to be tackled as it contributes to the problem of ad fraud in digital advertising. TAG’s Certified Against Malware programme provides a set of standards to help companies combat malware effectively in the digital advertising supply chain, improving the customer experience and stopping botnet attacks that fund fraudsters. The programme includes requirements related to verifying your partners and documenting their responsibilities, scanning and rescanning assets and landing page URLs throughout campaigns, and having proper procedures in place to respond to and remediate in the event of malware attacks. By co-ordinating cross-industry information-sharing, TAG enables companies to partner in thwarting attacks that they would not be able to stop alone.”

Piracy remains an issue throughout the industry, and this too has extended itself into criminal activity in digital advertising.

“Advertisers and publishers (content creators) lose a significant amount of money from ad-funded piracy,” says Stringer. “This is when digital advertising is used to fund pirates who are providing content and services that breach intellectual property rights and copyright laws. TAG seeks to combat this – via its Certified Against Piracy programme – by providing the digital advertising sector with the tools to prevent the distribution of pirated content or counterfeit goods. The programme includes important roles to play for advertisers, agencies, ad tech intermediaries and publishers in the fight against ad-supported piracy.”


TAG homepage ()


A US study in 2017 by Ernst & Young showed that this industry effort has reduced ad revenue for pirate sites by between 48 and 61 per cent. And the fight against piracy does not stop there. The organisation is also supporting the fight against ad-supported piracy through public policy engagement. TAG is a signatory to the European Commission’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), seeking to tackle ad-funded piracy, and many of the companies who have also signed up to the MoU are also TAG members and are using TAG’s standards as a way of adhering to the MoU.

While the Trustworthy Accountability Group acknowledges the importance of additional issues such as viewability, transparency, and accurate media metrics, Stringer emphasises that the organisation’s key focus remains on tackling criminal activity and promoting brand safety.

“TAG is 100 per cent focused on stopping fraud, piracy and malware in the supply chain, and increasing transparency so that new criminal issues don’t arise. That should give digital advertisers more bandwidth to focus on other brand safety issues like viewability, knowing that TAG is an effective ‘cop on the beat’ fighting crime with them.”

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