From cattle rustling to click fraud

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In the 1800s, cattle rustling, the practice of stealing someone else's stray cattle by branding them with your iron, was a big problem. Professional cattle rustlers were the fraudsters of their time, wreaking havoc on honest, hardworking cowboys.

Fast-forward a couple hundred years to the online world and not much is changed. Today, spammers, phishers and, most recently, perpetrators of pay-per-click search advertising click fraud register accounts and domains and alter online brands to commit fraud.

The problem with any type of fraud is it can never be eliminated completely as long as there is financial incentive to commit it. But it can be minimized by collaboration. The online world has not always accepted this fact or learned from history.

As search engines and advertisers have seen, click fraud is the new spam. And click fraud is facing a similar challenge that spam did. Some search engines claim they have the click fraud problem under control or that click fraud is a technology problem that can be solved by people in white coats with unlimited resources.

This premise has proved flawed time and time again. Fraud cannot be solved when there is significant economic incentive to commit it. Rather, it can only be mitigated by aggressive cross-company and industry cooperation and with the development of sophisticated detection systems, which continuously and quickly adapt.

In the case of cattle rustling, ranchers, law enforcement and livestock markets worked together to monitor the brands of all cattle up for sale in the livestock marketplace. If something looked suspicious, one or more members of the community reported it to the marketplace, affected ranchers contacted, information was shared, evidence was investigated and stolen cattle were quickly returned.

The same could be done for click fraud, which accounts for 14 percent to 30 percent of all online pay-per-click advertising activity, according to industry estimates.

Third-party click-fraud monitoring firms will play a key role in making this happen. Marrying data from third-parties with the click-stream data collected by search engines and advertisers, click fraud can be effectively controlled and mitigated quickly when outbreaks occur.

Click fraud needs the cooperation of search engines, third-party monitoring firms and advertisers to identify and mitigate the impact of click fraud. Baby steps have been taken with publisher groups such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau and advertising groups like the Click Quality Council working on industry solutions to the click fraud problem. But only continued collaboration by all parties will ensure that click fraud joins cattle rustling as an issue that advertisers and direct marketers feel is truly a worry of the past.

Tom Cuthbert is CEO of Click Forensics Inc., Austin, TX. Reach him at

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