Homegrown Phone Farms

Phone farm image from Vice

A Vice article that was recently published and struck waves in the industry revealed a phenomenon in the US of homegrown phone farms, operated mostly by students or others in need of a side income. While agriculture is in the decline, these new ‘farms’ are on the rise – truly a testament of a generation who grew up holding a screen in hand.

The article detailed how each of them got started and how they maximized their revenue while minimizing their efforts, but the main point for us was seeing how common it was. Since these are mostly not large scale click farms that we’re used to imagining, nor are there ‘evil’ people who operate them full time – it’s not something companies would try and track – which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s untraceable as much as it’s just not being looked at. A negligible amount of $5-$10 a day is not something that seems to be worth the effort for a company, but since this seems to be a global phenomenon, the scale of the problem is probably very much significant and there should be better monitoring. 

Small Scale Widespread Fraud

The article described people who operate home farms that range in size from as little as 9 phones and up to 200 phones for a single user. In one of the cases, the farm would work for 3 hours in the morning and 6 hours in the evening and make a few dollars a day, which isn’t considered large scale by any means, but the picture gets gloomier when you realize just how many of these home-made phone farms are out in the wild.

This, in our opinion, and at this point in time, indicates a larger problem than large scale click farms, because its smaller scale allows these homegrown fraudsters to simulate a real user better. Even the users who made these small amounts of money weren’t really watching the videos they were meant to watch. 

This is not a foreign concept to us, we’re experienced with detecting and preventing all types of fraud (be it big or small scale) but we wanted to delve deeper into this subject and see how easy it is to commit fraud that generates hundreds of undeserved dollars monthly for an unclear but probably alarming amount of individuals.

The amazing conclusion is always how easy it is to find fraudsters when looking for them. This time (as opposed to last time) it didn’t even require the assistance of our Chinese team members, just a few attempts with Google Translate, running through possible terms for click farms and mobile click farms (the first one found real actual farms and the second one led to farming-related mobile games) but in the end, we were able to find the actual term in Chinese and quickly discover websites that willingly share their methods with their readers.   

Step-by-step Fraud Tutorials

The level of detail constantly astonishes me. I don’t know a word of Chinese but now I know how to record macro commands and run them automatically, as shown in this video: 

Truly a step-by-step guide for everyone to use. 

Now, you may point out that this video only has 70+ views, which is true (as of writing this post), but even if only 7 people, 10% out of those 70, started using recorded macros for fraud out of this single video, it adds up. Just imagine how many more tutorials must be out there around the world in different languages and how many users practice similar methods. 

If you’re still in doubt or using excuses such as pointing out that this is desktop-based fraud, while the world had moved on to mobile, you’d be happy to know that this very same website also shared a mobile fraud version. This mobile fraud video shows how to record automatic clicks in a mobile game, which is essentially in-app fraud.

This video is another step-by-step guide you could probably follow without understanding a single word in Chinese. If you’re still not convinced though, there’s a link in the description box leading to the automatic clicker app used in the video, and a quick search in the app store reveals the range of automatic clicker apps that currently exist: 

Screenshot from the Google Play store of Automatic Clicker apps
Screenshot from Google Play

As you can see, there is an abundance of automatic clicker apps, which means that there’s a demand for these apps, guaranteeing that we can find many more small scale home-made click farms.

Needle in a Haystack

The Play Store search results prove that even a small scale homegrown phone farm is a big scale problem for the industry. The solution, as always, is a bit more complex, mostly because there isn’t one simple solution. Our recommendation is that each company invest some of its resources towards finding solutions and tracking post-install, in-app fraud. 

Every company should strive to stay ahead of the curve and recognize fraud at the user level, not just abnormal click numbers and too short or too long CTIT windows, etc.

Another suggestion is more of a preventive measure – create in-app limitations. If you allow users to watch endless amounts of rewarded videos a day, it’s easier to choose your app as an easy target for fraud. There are enough loopholes fraudsters have a nick for finding – don’t make it easier on them. 

In conclusion, what seems like an innocent homegrown small scale click farm, might have big consequences on your app, distorting your data and presenting false performance data. Keeping data as clean as possible is what every app developer, attribution platform and machine-learning-based DSP should strive for. 

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