Amazing – local media outlets are giving off death rattles if they’re not already dead and buried, but a newly launched “news” site for the teensy Texas town of Laredo has seen its traffic shoot through the roof: from 200K page views in August 2019 to 3.7m visits a mere three months later.

What’s the secret sauce for laredotribune.com, created in June 2019?

According to Social Puncher, a firm that’s analyzed what it concludes is a series of sham news sites, the Laredo Tribune site is running on the fumes of pure ad fraud.

The fakery is funded by advertisers who are unwittingly paying fraudsters who pump up the page views on small “news” sites to eye-watering levels. They’re doing so by buying fake traffic from bots: evidenced by anomalies such as nearly all the traffic coming from mobile devices. That’s atypical, unless a site is specifically targeted at a mobile audience.

Other red flags include the fact that the average number of pages visited and the time that the “users” spent on the site were sky-high, particularly for mobile users, and that most visits came from outside the site’s target geography.

Social Puncher’s Vlad Shevtsov, director of investigations, estimates that each of these fake news sites – which have astonishingly high traffic rates but mysteriously blink out of existence after only a short time – makes at least $100,000 (£77,450) a month.

But real news costs money to make. Writing it requires humans. Why go to all that trouble, when you can just rip off evergreen articles that are years old and post them to sites with gazillions of pages that aren’t even shown to real, live humans? From the first in a series of reports titled The fake traffic schemes that are still rotting the Internet:

The annual losses from ad fraud are estimated at billions, and even tens of billions of dollars. There are thousands, and even tens of thousands of fake sites that just simulate real media to deceive advertisers. But almost no one wonders what such sites should look like.

Cardboard cutouts posing as real news sites

How do we know that the Laredo Tribune site is bogus? Or, for that matter, the other sites that Social Puncher analyzed, all of which have newsy-sounding names: forbesbusinessinsider.com, cityofedmontonnews.com, and stantondaily.com?

A casual audit of The City of Edmonton News site will show that it’s riddled with broken functions and utter neglect. For example, the articles are old, but they don’t display dates, so their age isn’t readily apparent. The About page has language about its focus on local news, but it lacks names or other details about who the editor or journalists are who supposedly create the content. Nor does it have an editorial address or any information about the owners.

The drop-down lists don’t provide links to actual categories. None of the buttons on the main page link to the social media accounts they’re supposed to go to; rather, they just link back to the same page.

If the site were run by a bona fide media outlet, those types of errors would have been fixed on the first day that it went live. But the site, made on a $59 WordPress template by Romanian developers, languishes.

Well, at least, the portion of the site that gives off a pro forma, faint aroma of legitimate small-town news languishes. But beyond that main page is the real meat, the place where the ads get picked up by fake visitors. When Social Punch dug deeper into the Edmonton site, for example, the firm found that the domain has a whole section of articles – one that’s much larger than the main part of the site – that aren’t related to Edmonton at all.