Google has reportedly begun removing apps from its Play store following substantial allegations of ad fraud against a Chinese Android developer, DO Global.

The company, which is part owned by the Chinese search company Baidu, has had 46 apps removed from the Play store off the back of an investigation by Buzzfeed news. In addition, Google appears to have removed DO Global apps inventory from its AdMob network.

The investigation had found that at least six apps from DO’s roster included a piece of code that registered fraudulent clicks on ads in-app, even when the user did not have the app open. Worse still, the company was found to be listing apps without disclosing that they were made by DO Global, which goes against Play store policy.  

Altogether, DO Global had around 100 apps on the Play store with over 600 million installs between them. Google’s removal of the apps is one of the largest bans it has ever instituted against a developer.

“We actively investigate malicious behavior, and when we find violations, we take action, including the removal of a developer’s ability to monetize their app with AdMob or publish on Play,” a Google spokesperson said.

In a statement to Buzzfeed, DO Global said it understands the “seriousness of the allegations,” and is conducting an “internal investigation” on the matter. “We regret to find irregularities in some of our products’ use of AdMob advertisements. Given this, we fully understand and accept Google's decision.” It concluded by offering sincere apologies.

It is relatively common for Google to take down individual offending apps but is much less likely to remove entire developers. A previous Buzzfeed investigation had revealed that two other developers – Cheetah Mobile and Kika Tech – had committed ad fraud. Google removed individual apps but didn’t do anything about either company. Kika has since returned to the Play store, and a spokesperson says that the developer and Google Play worked closely to resolve the issues.

The investigation was carried out by the security firm Check Point, in conjunction with Buzzfeed news. “In a world where ad revenue can produce a very high income, it’s not surprising why malicious actors are after fraudulent activities against ad agencies. ‘Follow the money’ is a good rule of thumb while investigating a malicious campaign,” it wrote in its findings.

“The research on how to deal with every ad agency, different code segments and a logging activity show us the amount of effort this actor has invested in this operation. With applications reaching 50,000,000+ downloads, we can only speculate the amount of money generated by this fraudulent activity.”

Ad fraud is a major thorn in the online advertising industry’s side, with an estimated cost to advertisers around $8.2 billion annually, according to the IAB. The battle with ad fraud is very much ongoing, but advertisers and trade associations believe the war is winnable, if the industry adapts by stipulating third-party verification and a refusal to pay for non-human impressions.

Sourced from Buzzfeed, Check Point, MediaPost, WARC; additional content by WARC staff.