Three Chinese citizens were arrested in Thailand Sunday after a police raid uncovered a massive click-fraud operation of roughly 500 smartphones, mostly iPhones, and an estimated 350,000 SIM cards. The men reportedly admitted to using the phones to inflate the number of clicks on ads in WeChat, China’s largest messaging app.
Responding to reports of illegal migrants, Thai police raided the home where the three men reportedly disclosed their role in the massive fraud case. Bangkok Post reports that although Thailand doesn’t have specific anti-click-fraud laws on the books, China has long outlawed the practice, where it’s increasingly common. The trio will likely be deported back to China.
WeChat has a reported 800 million followers across the nation of China and bots and fraud operations are a documented problem for the app.
In 2015, the managing director of a Shanghai ad agency told AdAge, “The only purpose of using fake WeChat fans is for unscrupulous agencies to dupe their clients, as in, ‘the campaign is working, look at all these fans you got.’” These inflated clickthrough rates trick vendors into believing their ads are over-performing. A 2015 study estimated that in the US, legitimate publishers lost $6 billion in revenue to bots.
Although the men have been apprehended, many questions remain. Both Thailand and China require ID when purchasing and registering SIM cards in bulk, and it remains unclear how the men acquired so many. Third parties can’t assess how widespread the WeChat click-fraud problem is since the company doesn’t disclose the metrics that would make it possible for outsiders to determine the balance of bots and real users.