Spammy Ads That Hijack Your Smartphone Are Now A Virtual Plague

In the past two weeks I have been forced into Apple’s App Store not once, not twice—but five times from a handful of different websites.

At first I thought it was a human error—like, maybe my large thumbs just accidentally tapped on a game ad. When it happened again, I assumed it was just a bug. After a third time, I realized it was intentional—an advertisement deliberately sent me to the App Store to buy a mobile game.

I never play mobile games, I’ve never downloaded Candy Crush, and I hate spammy advertisements. So the third time I was sent to the App Store to download Bingo Blitz, I wanted to take my phone and smash it to bits. 

Instead, I emailed The Awl, a website I read frequently and whose mobile site kept forcing me into the App Store, to ask what the problem was. Were they intentionally allowing advertising networks to place spammy ads on their site so poor souls like me would download Bingo Blitz and Candy Crush?

Turns out The Awl was just as frustrated as I was. A representative for the company told me it’s an insidious problem that’s been plaguing the site for a couple weeks.

The Awl is not alone. These ads have been hitting websites all over, and publishers are struggling to take them down. NBC Sports had a similar problem earlier this year. The company claimed the ad product came from Google, and to remedy it, NBC blocked all mobile game ads from its mobile site.

What Are These Spammy Ad Redirects?

Just like we’ve seen on the desktop Web, mobile apps and browsers can inadvertently serve up malicious advertisements and annoying popups.

As mobile apps take over our devices, advertisers are beginning to use so-called “deep links” to encourage users to download even more applications. When someone taps on a deep-linked ad, it takes them from an app or mobile browser directly to a separate application or a download page in the platform’s app store.

These types of advertisements are becoming increasingly popular. Deep-linked ads account for a large portion of Facebook’s ad revenue.

Mobile ad redirects result when malicious—or maybe just faulty—JavaScript in a mobile ad runs on a Web page. When you’re browsing your favorite website and suddenly find yourself in an app store, it’s the result of a bad deep link. (Sometimes you can end up on porn sites, or even on a porn site masquerading as an app store.)

Alex Calic, chief revenue officer at The Media Trust, an advertising verification company, said that while some ads are nefarious—intentionally booting you out of an app or website—much of it is just bad code.

“When the Web was launched, there was a lot of creative, shady activity people produced; we’re now seeing a lot of that on mobile—but there’s also just bad coding,” Calic said. “Desktop Web is standardized, like script code and iframe code, and they work when you put them into the system to scan. On mobile, there are a lot of different ways to do things.”

Who’s At Fault?

Don’t go angrily tweet that your favorite site is serving up shoddy ads as soon as you’re thrown into an app store. It’s not the publisher’s fault. It’s not the fault of Apple, Google or Microsoft, either.  

Most publishers use third-party advertising networks to distribute ads. These networks are responsible for delivering redirects. Websites buy inventory from networks that are in charge of delivering advertising content, thus forced to display whatever they get. 

One user of the social new site Reddit noted that three different ad networks were serving up these spammy ads on his site and he couldn’t prevent it.

Sometimes these ad networks verify the ads before they’re distributed, but often, malicious or annoying advertisements can slip through the cracks, either because there wasn’t a quality check, or because an advertiser added redirect code after the ad was screened. 

It’s very difficult for a publisher to prevent spammy redirects—they don’t know it’s an issue until someone like you or me experiences it on the client side. “Most prevention has to happen on the server side,” Calic said. “You don’t know if something is a problem until it occurs. It’s hard to stop at the point of delivery.”

Because some ad networks charge by the click or install, an advertisement that redirects someone to a download page could make more money for the company. Most app makers frown on this kind of behavior, and some don’t know when it’s happening.

King, the maker of Candy Crush (whose game I’ve been redirected two twice in the last couple of weeks), disapproves of this type of advertising. “King does not condone this practice and we do everything in our power to prevent it,” a spokesperson from King told ReadWrite. “Our contracts forbid it and we will terminate contracts with any suppliers found in breach of contract by creating these redirects.” 

How Can They Be Prevented?

Publishers can use products like the Media Trust’s Mobile Scanner that can automatically detect ad redirects, but unfortunately, there’s very little users can do to prevent seeing them.

The next time you’re forced into an app store from a mobile website, screenshot the app, copy the link to the ad and send both to the publisher. Websites can’t do anything to stop these ads from appearing if they don’t know the ads are there.

Every mobile advertisement is tagged with a code, so if the publisher figures out the ad tag, it can go back to the ad network and tell them to kill the ad, or not run it on their site.

If you’d rather not see these ads at all, there are a handful of ad-blocking apps that prevent popups on mobile, just like they do on the Web: Adblock Plus for Android, and Weblock and Adblock for iOS. 

Alternatively, you can disable JavaScript in your mobile browser. It’s not the best idea because it could render much of the Web useless, but it will effectively stop the redirect ads. You can turn off JavaScript on your iPhone by scrolling to Safari in the Settings app, tapping “Advanced,” and toggling JavaScript off. For Google Chrome on Android and iOS, find “Settings” in the Chrome menu, then select “Content settings.”

We’re still suffering with spammy popup ads on our desktop computers, so it’s likely we’ll continue to be frustrated on mobile in the foreseeable future. But if users start complaining to publishers, they can then pressure ad networks to do something to stop these redirects—and make the mobile Web a much better experience. 

Lead image illustration by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite

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