The Department of Justice in the US has hit eight individuals with charges relating to a major digital ad fraud that generated $36m and seized associated internet domains and data.

The indictment outlines how the defendants, from Russia and Kazakhstan, ran two different “purported” advertising networks that falsified billions of ad views leading businesses to pay millions of dollars for ads that were never seen by real human internet users.

One network rented more than 1,900 computer servers and used them to load ads on fake websites, with the servers then programmed to simulate online user activity and give the appearance that humans were viewing those ads; businesses overpaid more than $7m for these commercials.

The second network used a botnet to access more than 1.7 million infected computers belonging to individuals and businesses, using hidden browsers on those infected computers to download fabricated web pages and load ads onto those fabricated web pages without users’ knowledge; businesses paid out more than $29m for these.

“The defendants in this case used sophisticated computer programming and infrastructure around the world to exploit the digital advertising industry through fraud,” US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donoghue said in a statement.

“This case sends a powerful message that this Office, together with our law enforcement partners, will use all our available resources to target and dismantle these costly schemes and bring their perpetrators to justice, wherever they are.”

The development was welcomed by the World Federation of Advertisers. “We have to change the risk/reward profile of ad fraud and this is a positive step in that direction,” said CEO Stephan Loerke.

That said, only three of the defendants have been arrested and the $36m they are reported to have generated is a drop in the $7bn ocean of ad fraud, while the indictments reveal how relatively easy it is for people who know what they are doing to game the system. There is a long way yet to go before brands can feel able to trust that they’re getting what they pay for.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have issued a technical alert advising on possible indicators of compromise and what action to take.

Sourced from Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security; additional content by WARC staff