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Attention Merchants: Affiliate Fraud Alert

Warning: The following post is blunt and to the point. To anyone who may take offense to any of its contents, you’ll just have to take offense. I’m not much on creating a public stir by airing this Industry’s dirty laundry just for the sake of the stir. I’d much prefer to see actions being taken quietly behind the scenes to clean up things that shouldn’t be happening. But sometimes things need some stirring and this is one of those times.

I touched on this affiliate in another blog post. What was mentioned there is just the tip of the iceberg with this affiliate. They have quite a racket going and I as mentioned in the other post, they have been engaging in this for years (in different manners). As I’ve seen them escalating their fraudulent behavior recently, it’s time to get more specific about what is happening. Could it be a coincident that the bad behavior is getting worse with busiest time of the shopping season upon us? I’m going to try and keep this simple (although the methods they are using aren’t simple) and in layman’s terms when I can. I don’t want the behavior to get lost in the technical explanations. For anyone who needs or wants the technical info, send me an email.

Zango Background

This is for anyone who somehow has managed NOT to hear about Zango/180Solutions. Advertisers purchase ad inventory from our friends at Zango/180Solutions/MetricsDirect. Their “ads” are displayed by Zango’s adware software. Zango’s software is installed on more than just a few computers. Zango advertisers specify the ‘keywords’ (I use that term loosely) that they want to trigger each of the ads they are running on Zango. This is ‘contextual advertising’ by Zango, although the exact context part is left up to Zango advertisers. Advertisers pay Zango a CPV (cost per view) fee, although technically it’s a cost per pop-up delivery by Zango software. It’s just that the ‘ad’ is usually the URL to a web site rather than a graphic creative (i.e. banner). So the pop-up is actually a web site.

The Fraud Scheme

What is described below happens on computers that have Zango software installed. I say that in bolding, because honestly no joking here, more than once I’ve had Merchants/Managers ‘test’ on a computer that doesn’t have the software installed on it and swear nothing suspicous is happening in their program. I also highly recommend, because this one happens also, that people don’t run out and start installing adware to see for themselves unless you are sure how to set it up on secure test computer. There are some really bad applications out there and a reason why there are security applications to remove this stuff from systems. If you need to know how to do that, then contact me.

This affiliate is running campaigns through Zango. Their ‘contextual’ targets for their ads (what is triggering their ads to be displayed) are the shopping cart URLs of many Merchants. So when a consumer places an item in the shopping cart of a merchant being targeted by this affiliate, then the affiliate’s ad will be displayed. Huge red flag right there that an affiliate is up to no good when they use the Merchant’s shopping cart URL as a mechanism for ‘promoting’ the merchant. The ‘ad’ that is delivered on the Merchant’s shopping cart is a pop-up to a competing Merchant. They use their affiliate link for the competing Merchant, so their affiliate tracking code/cookie is set for that Merchant. This is a forced click to the competing Merchant because I didn’t come anywhere close to actually clicking on their affiliate link as a consumer. All I did was add a product to the shopping cart of a completely different Merchant.

A couple of points that need to be made at this point (because this affiliate isn’t done yet!). First, the Merchant they are popping a competitor’s web site on is also a Merchant they are an affiliate with. Nice to have one of your affiliate’s potentially enticing your customer away who may well be about to make a purchase from you isn’t it? Did you just see your shopping cart abandonment ratio go up? Second, what if this affiliate is popping your web site on your competitor’s shopping cart page? What risks did they just expose you to? Some Merchants don’t take to kindly to such activity and will address the problem by whatever means are available to them.

Now comes the really nasty part of what this affiliate is doing with that pop-up ad. Not only do they invoke their affiliate link for the Merchant in the pop-up, they also do it for ten (10) other merchants in the same vertical! But you won’t see ten pop-ups, because they do it in a manner (techie stuff I’m not getting into here) that the consumer doesn’t ever see the Merchant’s web site. Wow, what a unique way for an affiliate to promote a merchant, don’t let the consumer actually see the Merchant’s web site. This is what we call a hidden forced click. There are a couple of possible advantages for this affiliate in using this technique. First is a shotgun approach. If the consumer ends up making a purchase from a different Merchant in the same vertical on their own, then their affiliate cookie will be set on the consumer’s computer and they would earn a commission. They may pick up a few commissions here and there. The second and more beneficial aspect for them is that they deliver ‘visits’ to the Merchants which do not convert into a sale. This helps to keep their conversion ratios at levels that won’t potentially set off red flags.

Now comes the really really nasty part of what this affiliate is doing. One of the hidden forced clicks is to Merchant they popped their ‘ad’ on. This affiliate’s tracking code is now in place for a Merchant they know already has consumer with an item in the shopping cart. If the consumer goes ahead with a purchase, then as a Merchant you will be paying this affiliate a commission on the sale. This technique of causing a forced click of an affiliate link on the Merchant’s shopping cart is called poaching the shopping cart. What exactly did this affiliate bring to you as a Merchant to deserve a performance-based commission on the sale? Can you imagine what this affiliate’s own ROI must look like? Ad buys through Zango are relatively cheap afterall.

An Example

ShoppingSnap Contextual Adware Cookie Stuffing

ShoppingSnap Contextual Adware Cookie Stuffing

I went to Rugman.com and added an $849.90 rug to the shopping cart. I received a pop-up (see image to left) to TheHomeMarketPlace over the Rugman.com web site. Actually they set their affiliate tracking code for TheHomeMarketPlace twice in that one pop-up, for good measure I suppose. But that’s all you will see, the one pop-up to HomeMarketPlace. But they also set their affiliate tracking code for Rugman. So if I had continued with my purchase from Rugman, this affiliate would have earned a $67.99 commission from Rugman.com (Rugman pays 8% commission through CJ). They also set their affiliate tracking code for these other Merchants through that one pop-up: WalterDrake x2 (once through a CJ link and once through a Performics link) Blinds.com, Improvements Catalog, PlowHearth, HomeClick, AbsoluteHome and DecorateToday. Including the Rugman tracking and HomeMarketPlace twice, that is a total of 11 affiliate cookies set by this affiliate through one pop-up delivered by Zango. If anyone has a legitimate argument as to why this isn’t affiliate fraud, I’m all ears.

Other Important Facts

This affiliate operates under many domains and account IDs. I have documented them using Zango for years now. Somehow they are able to keep active accounts with the Networks. While in the example above, I went directly to the Merchant’s web site, both Merchants and Affiliates should understand that what happened in the example could have happened regardless of how the consumer originally arrive to the Merchant’s site. It doesn’t matter if the consumer got to the Merchant from a direct type-in, SERP (Merchant or Affiliate’s), another affiliate’s link (cookie overwrite), PPCSE listing (Merchant or Affiliate’s), email, shopping comparison engine or anything else. Zango’s software does not block ads from appearing based on orginating traffic. In the past they did to a limited degree for some Network links, but that no longer holds true. I have observed an increase in this affiliate’s actiivty and agressiveness recently with their Zango campaigns. Again, the Q4 season is upon us. No one should have any doubts that both Merchants and other legitimate affiliates are being impacted by this particular affiliate’s acitivites. They are making sales through their use of MetricsDirect services. I’ve had some Merchants tell me how many sales were credited to this affiliate in just a few weeks time under just one of their accounts.

Recent Domains Used By Affiliate Through Zango

These are the domains we have documented associated with this affiliate over the last few months. Merchants can check their accounts for traffic coming from these domains:

beyondtrade.net
livesell.net
strategyauction.com
realtimeauction.net
crazyauctionbargains.com
big-auction.com
kwik-buy.com
accessorite.com
flirtationow.com
salesshack.com
causalsneakers.com
shoessneakers.com
Pulseoffers.com
ShoppingSnap.com

We wouldn’t be surprised if there were other domains they are utilizing in addition to these.

Known Network Partnerships

This are Networks that we have documented this affiliate to be partnered with:

Amazon
BeFree
Commission Juntion
Commission Monster
LinkShare
Performics

This affiliate is partnered with numerous Merchants.

Known Affiliate IDs

I’m not going to post specific affiliate IDs for reasons I’m not going to get into. If you are a Network or Merchant who is subscribed to the AFP Service, then log into your account. They are posted on the Service. If you are a Merchant or Network not subscribed to our Service, then send me an email and I will provide you with the affiliate IDs. You should be aware that some of the domains listed above that they are using do not even have affiliate links on the site.

Final Thoughts

The activity this affiliate is engaging in does not happen by accident. There is a rather high degree of sophistication involved in how they are implementing this. There is a certain degree of programming knowledge being used (the techie stuff I didn’t get into). I can view this in no other way but intentionally scamming of Merchant’s by this affiliate. It is a long standing problem with this affiliate. The Networks obviously are not or can not monitor the continued activity by this affiliate. At the end of the day, it is going to be up to Merchants to maintain the integrity of their programs. Affiliates should understand that it may not be easy for Merchant’s to detect the activity of this affiliate through traffic flows. Merchants should be made aware of the problem and given the opportunity to correct it. Get the word out to your Merchants. To any Manager or OPM out there who knows about the activity of this affiliate in their program and doesn’t take corrective action…… I ‘get’ for some Managers/OPMs they may welcome this activity because it pads your bottom line statistics for your channel. If that is your stance, you are ripping off whoever you are working for just as much as this affiliate is ripping off Merchants. You should be taken to the woodshed and flogged with a wet noodle. Then you should fired by whoever is paying you in all due haste. Finally, it should be made known within this community that you do not have your employer’s best fiscal interests at heart when managing a program. I also ‘get’ how difficult it can be at times for a Manager/OPM to explain the need to cut an affiliate who is bringing in sales to the higher ups in corporate. Any Manager/OPM who encounters such a problem feel free to have the CFO and/or Legal contact me. I’ll explain it to them. Scammers who give this Industry a bad name shouldn’t be profiting, especially during the busiest time of the year and off the hard work of others

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  1. Pingback: Protect Yourself the Zango Way

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