Multi-million-dollar ad fraud: Phunware Inc ‘BS to Uber’ used click-flooding, auto-redirects, brand-unsafe sites


The major mobile advertising fraud case which Uber won against  Phunware Inc in October 2020 saw the uncovering by Uber’s legal team, Reed Smith, of an egregious destruction of evidence in the process by Phunware. And should alert digital marketing  custodians of brands.

The multimillion-dollar dispute in California state court over mobile advertising fraud actually began when Austin-based mobile advertising company Phunware, Inc., sued Uber in 2017, accusing it of breach of contract claiming $3 million in unpaid invoices.

But there was much more to the story.

In response to Phunware’s suit, Uber counter-claimed against Phunware, accusing it, its co-founder and CEO Alan Knitowski and several other employees, of wire fraud, racketeering, transporting fraudulently-obtained funds across state lines, and common law fraud, seeking up to $17 million in compensation as well as additional amounts for punitive damages.

Uber had indirectly hired Phunware, along with other third-party ad networks, to help Uber increase installations among consumers of its mobile app, the cornerstone of its business model. 

However, as the legal battle continued, evidence of widespread and continuing fraud came to light. 

Uber had grown suspicious of Phunware’s ad activity back in 2016, when an Uber employee raised serious concerns about Phunware’s activities on the ad campaign.

As Reed Smith confirmed in discovery, most of the Uber app installations that Phunware claimed to have delivered were generated by a fraudulent process known as “click flooding,” which reports a higher number of clicks than those occurring. 

Much of the ad traffic Phunware brought for Uber also came through auto-redirects, which automatically took visitors to an app store, whether the user clicked on the ad or not.

In fact, two former Phunware employees had conducted an internal investigation discovering that Phunware had falsely billed Uber for ad clicks they did not deliver. But Phunware continued its fraudulent practices. As evidenced in discovery, a wide-scale culture of fraud continued for many months. For example, in an email sent on Oct. 31, 2016, a Phunware employees wrote: “Guys it’s… time to spin some more BS to Uber to keep the lights on.”

To compound matters further, it was discovered that Phunware had placed Uber’s ads on pornographic websites, in direct violation of its contract and advertising standards.

Bob Hoffman

Meanwhile, here’s what our favourite international columnist-speaker-expert Bob Hoffman has to say about the case. Bob writes in his latest post on his blog The Ad Contrarian (named one the world’s most influential advertising and marketing blogs by Business Insider): “While Phunware was clearly committing fraud, most agencies and digital ad buyers aren’t nearly so stupid. Their crimes are usually sins of omission, not commission. They just turn their heads and pretend they don’t know what’s going on. This provides them with deniability.”

Bob goes on to add, “Meanwhile, the adtech ecosystem is crawling with sewer rats stealing billions from dumbass marketers who believe the reports they get and the bullshit they’re told.” 

Even worse, Phunware attempted to cover this up as well by falsifying reports, which made it appear as if the ads were placed on legitimate, non-pornographic sites instead.

Ultimately, in a form of victory rarely seen in the courts, the Reed Smith team won a motion for terminating sanctions against Phunware.

The Reed Smith motion was granted owing to Phunware’s spoilation of evidence, which was uncovered in discovery.

Among the evidence destroyed by Phunware were the files of an employee whistleblower, whose investigation of fraud formed the basis for the lawsuit.

Another key piece of evidence destroyed were logs showing precisely where Phunware had placed Uber’s mobile ads.

Not only are terminating sanctions rarely awarded, but the court dismissed Phunware’s case against Uber and issued a default judgment against Phunware on Uber’s case, paving the way for settlement.

John Bovich

“This case is a good example of how an aggressive discovery and motions strategy can turn the tides against fraudulent practices and claims,” said John Bovich, Intellectual Property, Technology and Data PARTNER at Reed Smith, who served as lead counsel for Uber in the suit. “It also shows the dangers of ignoring and attempting to conceal your own internal investigations.”

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