Cookie stuffing fraud sounds like stuffing cookie dough into shoppers browsers with harmful sugar substitutes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Also called cookie dropping, this is an illicit process in which affiliate fraudsters use third-party cookies on users' browsers to make affiliate marketing fraud manipulate the origin of web traffic.
Media Rating Council, a nonprofit organization that manages accreditation for media research and rating purposes, classifies cookie-stuffed traffic as Sophisticated Invalid Traffic (SIVT). It is more difficult to detect SIVT, and therefore requires "advanced analytics, multi-point corroboration/coordination, significant human intervention, etc., to analyze and identify."
Affiliate Marketing: An Overview
Affiliate marketing emerges as a lucrative channel for promoting a brand affiliate website's product or service. This mutually beneficial arrangement allows affiliates to earn commissions by promoting a merchant affiliate website's offerings and driving sales or leads. However, like many online ventures, it's susceptible to fraudulent activities like cookie stuffing, which tarnishes the core essence of affiliate programs and causes significant financial repercussions on merchants, publishers, and even unsuspecting internet users.
The Anatomy of Cookie Stuffing
Cookie stuffing occurs when fraudulent affiliates bombard a user's browser with numerous cookies from various affiliate networks, without the user’s knowledge or consent. This malicious activity primarily aims to mislead tracking systems within affiliate networks to generate false commissions. When a user clicks through to the merchant's site and initiates a purchase, the fraudulent cookie stuffer, not the legitimate affiliate network, reaps the commission. This practice tarnishes the core essence of affiliate programs, which is to reward genuine efforts by affiliates in driving traffic and sales.
Tools of the Trade: Methods Employed in Cookie Stuffing
Also called inline framing, this is when an HTML page is embedded within another existing HTML page. It is meant to embed ad placements within a page. However, when the code is implemented without careful inspection of parameters, library files, etc., it could be made to automatically drop cookies on the other user's computer or system once the affected page is loaded.
Image or Pixel Stuffing
This method of stuffing can either take the form of either several tiny images blending with the background of a portion of a webpage or a seemingly regular-sized image. Also known as pixel stuffing, the ad or an image link or entire website is placed inside a tiny 1x1 or 0x0 pixel using an iframe that makes them invisible to the human eye.
It is paramount that sites should only read their own cookies — ones they created — because cookie contents are such sensitive information. Nefarious browser plugins, however, make cookie stuffing possible by enabling the extraction and modification of targeted websites' cookies. This would allow fraudsters to force clicks from WordPress sites, disrupting chaos, and causing payment hurdles.
Pop-Ups and Pop-Unders
These intrusive methods involve opening new browser windows (pop-ups) or pop up of tabs (pop-unders) to load web pages that drop affiliate cookies onto users’ systems. Although ad blockers and modern browsers curb this method, it still finds its way through in some cases.
Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
Fraudsters exploit vulnerabilities in websites to inject malicious scripts. Scripts embedded in web pages, especially those of questionable origin, can be devised to perform cookie stuffing whenever a user visits a particular web page, or the user interacts further with certain elements on the page.
Direct Affiliate URLs
Fraudsters sometimes embed direct or affiliate marketer URLs within scripts or pop-ups, leading users to a merchant affiliate marketer's site through their affiliate link, and in turn, dropping a cookie on the user's device.
Effects of Cookie Stuffing
Merchants or Affiliate Businesses
When a fraudster manages to get ahold of a site's cookies, and unless the merchant manages to somehow become aware of it, the game is about over. The merchant loses money to unearned commissions, faces chargebacks, and risks losing its reputation with each passing day.
In the same light, when merchants are paying publishers for website clicks and end up reaching irrelevant people due to cookie stuffing, they aren't getting what they paid for. There are numerous ways that those clicks mess up analytics — most notably website hits, but also bounce rate.
Merchants might even grow wary of partnering with publishers altogether. But then they would be missing out on an excellent opportunity to get the much-needed exposure their business deserves, all because of cookie stuffing.
Legitimate publishers work hard to provide informative and engaging content for their audience, and it takes years of dedicated work for one to become an authority in their respective fields. It is ill-fitting for fraudsters to shamelessly take credit for a traffic source that should belong to a particular publisher. Then again, ethics is the last thing on the minds of these bad actors.
Additionally, publishers have a lot to lose in terms of their reputation and the trust between them and merchants. Even if a publisher target website isn't actively involved in unethical user behavior itself, stuffed cookies associated with their sites can still have severe direct and indirect consequences.
Cookie placement without valid and compliant GDPR make cookie stuffing illegal because consent violates GDPR laws. Globally, similar privacy laws protect customers' data. Unfortunately, affiliate fraudsters don't care about such violations, and cookie stuffing serves as a convenient way to get away with their misdoings. As long as there is inadequate awareness about the effects of data breaches in the populace, cookie stuffing could be even more drastic.
Digital ad fraud erodes the efficacy of all advertising operations everywhere. With cookie stuffing, fraudsters simply barge into ad networks and pillage the funds of legitimate companies.
Advertising agencies and businesses that depend on running web ads to promote their products and services have not been properly tackling ad fraud, even as it keeps getting more sophisticated every year. Many are aware of cookie stuffing, for instance, but think it's not a big deal or simply tag it as a cost of doing business.
Digital advertising, however, does not work unless products are safely marketed to real people. Cookie stuffing, done at the behest of fraudsters, is but one type of fraud that continues to reduce the effectiveness of ads across the web.
Shielding the Fortress: Combatting Cookie Stuffing
Amplifying awareness among merchants, publishers affiliate marketers, and users about the nefarious implications and deceptive practice of cookie stuffing and the importance of adhering to ethical affiliate marketing practices is paramount.
Ad Fraud Prevention Tools
The advent of sophisticated ad fraud prevention tools heralds a beacon of hope. These tools, adept at identifying trends and regularly monitoring review sites for fraudulent activities, serve as formidable deterrents against cookie stuffing.
Establishing stringent legal frameworks and punitive measures against cookie stuffing acts as a deterrent, with notable legal precedents and ongoing legislative efforts shedding light on the seriousness of this issue.
Regular Monitoring and Auditing
Merchants and affiliate networks should invest in regularly monitoring and auditing their affiliate program programs to identify trends and weed out fraudulent affiliates.
A vigilant community of merchants, legitimate affiliates, and users can significantly contribute to prevention efforts.
There is a growing number of ad fraud prevention tools, each more refined to tackle a distinct category of fraudulent affiliate fraud. Most of these frauds that were barely detectable a few years ago can now be identified and eliminated by many of today's advanced ad fraud prevention tools.
While cookie stuffing is an old and pernicious form of affiliate fraud, businesses, agencies, and advertising networks can now confidently combat it and safeguard their brands.
Frequently Asked Questions about Cookie Stuffing Fraud
How do fraudsters drop cookies into a user's web browser?
Can cookie stuffing be a form of wire fraud?
Yes, cookie stuffing can be considered a form of wire fraud, especially when it involves knowingly and intentionally deceiving an affiliate program for personal financial gain through the internet, which is a form of wire communication.
How can businesses identify cookie stuffing in their affiliate marketing campaigns?
Businesses can identify cookie stuffing by regularly monitoring and auditing their campaigns for any unusual activity, using sophisticated analytics tools to detect patterns indicative of fraud, and by being vigilant about any suspicious increases in affiliate activity that do not correlate with expected traffic or sales patterns.
What can be done to prevent cookie stuffing and prevent fraud in online marketing?
To prevent cookie stuffing and prevent fraud, businesses can employ advanced ad fraud prevention tools, educate their affiliate partners, implement stringent legal frameworks, conduct regular monitoring and auditing, and foster community vigilance among users and legitimate affiliates.
Is image cookie stuffing a threat even with modern browser security features?
Yes, image cookie stuffing can still be a threat despite modern browser security features because it often goes undetected as it employs invisible images or pixels to discreetly write data onto a visitor's browser, which is challenging to identify without specialized tools.
How can a website visitor protect themselves from cookie stuffing?
A website visitor can protect themselves from cookie stuffing by using reputable browser security and ad-blocking tools, being cautious of clicking on pop-up ads or suspicious links, and regularly clearing their cookies and browser cache to remove any unwanted third-party cookies.
What role do banner ads play in cookie stuffing?
Banner ads can be manipulated by fraudsters using cookie stuffing techniques to covertly load direct affiliate URLs or execute scripts that stuff cookies when a user interacts with the ad, even without a direct click, leading to undeserved commissions being claimed.
How can a sting operation be used to prevent fraud in affiliate marketing campaigns?
A sting operation can be employed as a proactive measure to prevent fraud by setting up a controlled affiliate marketing scenario where the parties involved monitor for cookie stuffing and catch fraudsters in the act, thus gathering evidence to take legal action and deter future fraudulent activities.
How can high traffic websites be more susceptible to affiliate cookie stuffing?
High traffic websites are more susceptible to cookie stuffing because they attract a larger number of visitors, increasing the chances for fraudsters to implement their questionable scripts across a wider audience. The volume of visitors can also make it more difficult to monitor and identify cookie stuffing activities due to the sheer amount of data to analyze.
Why are pop-up ads a concern when it comes to the security of a user's online activity?
Pop-up ads are a security concern because they can be used as a vehicle for cookie stuffing, where unsuspecting users might receive a third-party cookie just by loading a website that features these ads. Such ads can operate discreetly in the background and manipulate a user's online activity tracking without their consent.
How does the practice of stuffing cookies impact the process of claiming commissions in affiliate programs?
It significantly impacts the integrity of claiming commissions in affiliate programs. When fraudsters engage in cookie stuffing, they are able to illegitimately claim commissions by forcing their cookies onto a user's browser. This means that when the user makes a purchase, the commission that should rightfully go to the legitimate affiliate is wrongly attributed to the fraudster who engaged in stuffing cookies. This not only distorts commission claims but also harms the trust and financial health of the entire affiliate program.