back to article Fraudulent ‘popunder’ Google Ad campaign generated millions of dollars

Scammers using Google Ads, stolen blog articles, and a "popunder" ad scheme on adult websites pulled in more than $275,000 a month by generating millions of ad impressions every month. So say researchers at cybersecurity vendor Malwarebytes, who assert the fraudsters were able to use people visiting high-traffic adult websites …

  1. Richard 12 Silver badge

    They're never legitimate

    By definition, a popunder is claiming an ad impression that doesn't exist, because the purported viewer doesn't see it.

    Usually it doesn't even get rendered at all, users either close the entire browser window (so all the popunder tabs are gone and never rendered), or they open something else - possibly generating another popunder tab.

    The only case they're even theoretically visible is if the viewer closes the tab they wanted. They'll then close the popunder as fast as they possibly can.

    Anything "below the fold" is never even rendered for a single frame.

    So they're always fraudulent, by design.

    1. tiggity Silver badge

      Re: They're never legitimate

      Indeed, came here to post my disagreement with the use of legitimate in the line

      "It's a common and legitimate online advertising model"

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: They're never legitimate

        >claiming an ad impression that doesn't exist, because the purported viewer doesn't see it.

        Isn't that true for 99% for ads ?

        1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

          Re: They're never legitimate

          You need to factor in the Ad blindness. Many people develop ability to not see adverts. Their brain simply does not register their presence.

          As a side effect they also don't see normal content that "looks like ad". Often it results in funny and confusing things when people ask support how to do something on the site as they don't see an option to do it and then only when support shows where that option is - often literally in front of them - and then it clicks in their brain "Aaaahaaaa I thought it was an ad!"

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: They're never legitimate

            This is does an evolutionary extension of the pre-existing gene that renders bureaucratic signage invisible.

      2. NoneSuch Silver badge

        Re: They're never legitimate

        Brave Browser stops most of that crap. According to my browser, 54 trackers are being blocked from and they are considered "legitimate."

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: They're never legitimate

          Brave even blocks pre-roll youtube ads (at least if you don't login to youtube) I don't know how it does this but I hope youtube don't find out

        2. chivo243 Silver badge

          Re: They're never legitimate

          Brave Browser and some help from my friends, noscript, ghostery, uBlock origin, and the PiHole...

          While reading the article, I wondered who the lucky stiff was that got to do this research?!

        3. M.V. Lipvig Silver badge

          Re: They're never legitimate

          Not for everyone I was using Brave on my Win7 machine but after the last update they announced that they were no longer supporting Win7. Sucks. I'm gonna miss them for a short time.

          I've had my Win7 machine for something like 10 years but it's starting to fail physically now. The mouse button no longer registers unless I hit it just right and the lid has to be held together to open and close it. It's not that I'm cheap, I just really like my little laptop and I'm gonna miss it.

    2. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Re: They're never legitimate

      Originally online advertising was relevant to what we were reading, but that feature has been removed to help make it very profitable and universal - advertising is now fraudulent everywhere just making the posting profitable, but not the items advertised. Advertising will be heading to the graveyard.

  2. Natalie Gritpants Jr

    Not sure this matters. Advertisers pay for an ad that may not be seen and the owner of the device may not see it.

    1. PhoenixKebab

      All annoying online advertising is because of the advertisers using more and more insidious ways to push ads to people who don't want to see them.

      I have zero sympathy for the advertisers themselves getting scammed.

      1. Rafael #872397

        I have zero sympathy for the advertisers themselves getting scammed.

        In fact, what are the adult sites displaying those ads? I'd like to visit it regularly to help the scammers in their noble cause of taking money from advertisers.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          I assume a site which conains content that online adults would be interested in - like

          Or is this about pictures of people getting along famously?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Yes, knowing that advertisers were being abused right next door, would add a very nice je ne sais quoi to the culmination of my visit.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      RE: Not sure why this matters...

      Well if you are paying for advertising you wouldn't like it.

      And if you have a phone/internet plan that is not unlimited you'd be paying for those unseen ads. If you could see them you might try to block them.

  3. simonlb


    Were they researching this behaviour for Malwarebytes? Or just Malwarebytes researchers who happened to notice this ad behaviour whilst perusing adult sites?

    1. Blazde

      Re: Researchers?

      We all have our preferred way of starting the workday. Some like to grab a coffee and quick chat in the break-room. Other people like to post mindless rubbish in the El Reg comments section. Still others like to spend 7 minutes and 45 seconds 'minding their own business' in the other tab whilst speed-reading 51 articles and also uncovering a multi-million dollar fraud network. I know which guy I'd hire.

      1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

        Re: Researchers?

        "I know which guy I'd hire."

        The one that supplies their own Kleenex?!?


        -------------> It's my smart casual gear .... honest!

        1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

          Re: Researchers?

          IF Google Ads did serve pornogrphic sites, then I wonder if they would serve up ads for kleenex

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Researchers?

      MalwareBytes do a browser extension to try and stop you being sucked into 'unsafe' sites (similar to Edge's SmatScreen or Chrome's SafeBrowsing, but an add-on rather than built-in)

  4. Peter Prof Fox

    Why would the ad networks care?

    Their job is to claim as many impressions as possible for their clients. Clients go "Wow! a thousand ads a day. Must be working." Google is taking its cut from every click so why should it care?

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Why would the ad networks care?

      Because their customers (ie the companies buying ads) might realise that most of what they're paying for is worthless.

      1. FatGerman Silver badge

        Re: Why would the ad networks care?

        They won't because those metrics don't exist. Google will only ever give them metrics that make it look like Google is doing a good job. Ad impressions served != ads viewed by people. Google have always known that which is why they don't publish those numbers (thought to be fair it's pretty impossible to actually do that).

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Re: Why would the ad networks care?

          Heh. Wanna bet?

          I worked for G a few years back. During a talk, a member of their ads team mentioned that recently, someone trying to do the right thing suggested tracking ROI for their ad customers. The answer swiftly came back, "NO!". It seems that the analysis had been done years earlier, and was known to be << 1. Not the sort of thing you want your suckers customers to know.

      2. martinusher Silver badge

        Re: Why would the ad networks care?

        >Because their customers (ie the companies buying ads) might realise that most of what they're paying for is worthless.

        Nobody can say that out loud. If people realized just how hated and ineffective online advertising was then an entire technological ecosystem would collapse. After all, the reason why we need faster and faster multicore processors and more and more memory just to read Internet content isn't because the content is more complex, its just to support the advertising ecosystem. So the result is a conspiracy of silence -- everyone pretends its all hunky dory because they all know in the back of their minds that if word got out that they're part of the largest pyramid scheme in history millions of jobs would vanish, revenues would collapse, investments would be worthless -- it would literally be "The End Of The World As We Know It".

        So like that well known planet builder "We'd far rather be happy than right".

  5. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Knowing nothing about web development

    Is this saying that the tech has been developed so that it detects clicks on pages that aren't actually even seen? And that this is considered a legitimate part of the fundamental underlying code that was developed by whoever it is who wrote this technology in the first place. i.e some developers thought "Lets include some code that says a page has been viewed when it hasn't because it's underneath another page?

    Or have I misunderstood?

    1. Martin-73 Silver badge

      Re: Knowing nothing about web development

      I believe so yes... the auto reload feature probably does something to do with this

  6. Scott 53

    Never heard it called that before

    The user is most likely busy minding their own business on the other active tab

    1. Joe W Silver badge

      Re: Never heard it called that before

      Now you know what people mean when they tell you to "mind your own business". It is, as Art Garfunkle put it, "the old familiar suggestion"...

      1. Death Boffin

        Re: Never heard it called that before

        As Art also said, "keepin' the customer satisfied".

        1. mobailey

          Re: Never heard it called that before

          Gives a new meaning to their song "I Am a Rock"


  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The real bugger is if you rely on 'reopen tabs from last session', rather than bookmark everything, and close the window only to discover a popunder

    8 minutes! that's at least 4 clips viewed... erm... or so I'm told

    1. Blazde

      It can't be 4 because it's never a whole number. 3 and most of the 4th? 4 and a little of the 5th if the 5th was a really good one?

      1. Marcelo Rodrigues

        "5th if the 5th was a really good one?"

        Isn't the other way around? Usually five, four if the fourth was really good?

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Five finger shuffle?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Anyone remember an industry ad from yesteryear ?

    It was about TV advertising, and it had a couple "making out" on a sofa while the TV was on. It was aimed at advertisers who were paying for TV ad time and the internet-winning strapline:


    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Anyone remember an industry ad from yesteryear ?

      I have to confess that it annoys me to no end that it's not "WHO'S SCREWING WHOM?".

      I know usage changes over time and the objective inflection of that pronoun is disappearing, but still, if I'd been in the industry and seen that advertisement, I would have immediately felt hostile to the message.

      1. Diogenes

        Re: Anyone remember an industry ad from yesteryear ?

        Myself literally agrees with you !

        I would like to download less bytes.

        note the icon

  9. Lil Endian Silver badge

    300,000 visits per month...

    ...and more than 50 pages viewed per visit.

    Is this a little excessive for minding my one's own business, perhaps indicating a bit of an addiction and requiring help?

    Asking for a friend!

  10. herman Silver badge

    Ads? What ads?

    I never see any ads and expect that any half capable geek will configure systems for their own and family member’s use to block ads as well. This can be as simple as installing a good hosts file.

  11. captain veg Silver badge

    "The average cost per thousand impressions (CMP) can be as low as five cents."

    What are these things called "cents"?

    Over here we in the advertising industry abbreviate cost per thousand impressions to CPT. As you would.

    For some reason over there they also talk about cost per thousand but write CPM (not CMP), for "cost per mille". As you undoubtedly wouldn't. I have no idea why.


  12. M.V. Lipvig Silver badge

    I really wish

    I knew how to do this. I'd stop after my first million bucks, I promise! I mean, if I can't live off 2 million there must be something wrong with me so, 5 million, then I turn it off. Why would anyone need more than 10 million anyway? I'm already debt free, so if 20 million won't cut the mustard nothing will.

    Face it, I'd run the crap out of it morning noon and night because I really want a Bell 222 parked in a hangar next to my house and them things ain't cheap! And no, I would not feel bad about screwing an ad slinger. As far as I'm concerned anyone screwing an ad jockey out of their cash has the moral high ground.

  13. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

    people visiting high-traffic adult websites to generate the ad impressions and money even if those individuals never saw any of the ads

    That really is a shame. I'm sure normally users of those sites pay a ton of attention to the advertisements.

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