Could a Link to Organized Crime Spark a Crackdown on Streaming Fraud?

During his tenure at Google in the early 2000s, Shuman Ghosemajumder‘s official title was global head of product, trust and safety. But he also acquired a snazzier moniker, “click fraud czar,” thanks to his efforts to combat bad actors who try to fake online activity to inflate advertising payouts.  


“It was very surprising to us, almost 20 years ago, when we saw organized crime getting involved with online fraud,” Ghosemajumder says. “Ever since then, I’m never surprised: The idea of cybercrime or online fraud coming from an individual hacker sitting in their bedroom hasn’t been the case for basically 30 years.”

Criminal interest in a different type of click fraud drew the attention of the music industry this week, when the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet published a piece alleging that the country’s gangs use streaming manipulation as a way to launder money earned via illicit activities. “Spotify has become an ATM for them,” an anonymous police investigator told the paper. 

“That article appears to point to a really kind of ingenious way of laundering money,” says James Trusty, a former federal prosecutor who worked on cases involving both computer fraud and money laundering. “It seems to me to be a fairly invisible process right now, and that poses serious challenges to law enforcement.”

“It’s the usual chase,” he adds. “The robbers come up with something new, and the cops eventually catch up.”

In a statement to Svenska Dagbladet, a rep for Spotify told the paper that “manipulated streams are a challenge for the entire industry,” one that the platform “is working hard to combat” via “market leading” technology. On top of that, the rep said Spotify has discovered no evidence that it is being used as a money laundering tool.

If additional criminal activity is discovered on streaming platforms, could that bring new pressure to the music industry to address streaming fraud — something many believe is long overdue? 


The article arrives at a time when executives from around the music industry are calling for better monitoring of the streaming ecosystem. “As an industry, we need to do more to harden the defenses of platforms and deter bad actors from using music streaming for criminal purposes,” Beatdapp co-CEOs Morgan Hayduk and Andrew Batey said in a statement. (Beatdapp makes fraud detection technology.) 

Svenska Dagbladet‘s report is hardly the first time connections have been drawn between criminals and the music business. Industry history books are sprinkled with gangsters, especially in the earlier decades before it consolidated and became increasingly corporate. In one of the most infamous episodes, the longstanding practice of paying for airplay drew government scrutiny after a 1986 NBC report linked prominent radio promoters with members of the mafia. 

But the resulting investigation ended up having little impact and ultimately fizzled out. In the book Hit Men, which catalogs this period, Fredric Dannen wrote that the lesson for the record business was that “the government is incapable of sending any major music industry figure to jail.” Paying for airplay continued unchecked for more than a decade.

The practice of paying for artificial streams has only recently drawn public criticism in the U.S. music industry. Streaming manipulation has the potential to distort market share calculations and steer money away from the hardworking artists who are not gaming the system. Both Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge and Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer have expressed concern about fraud in calls with financial analysts this year. 


“Once someone like Lucian Grainge makes a statement about it, it’s necessarily going to get more prominence,” says one streaming service executive who agreed to speak about manipulation on the condition of anonymity. “That’s not to say we weren’t dealing with it behind the scenes before Lucian was making statements. But now there is broader recognition of the scope of the problem and the impact that it has on revenues and royalties that should be, but have not been, paid through to legitimate artists.” 

Potential connections between streaming manipulation and criminal elements were raised last year at a pair of music industry panels, first at South by Southwest and then at the Music Biz conference. Michael Pelczynski, who was then SoundCloud’s vp of strategy, participated in both discussions. “We were able to see signs of such activity” by collaborating with Pandora/SiriusXM and the cybersecurity company HUMAN, he says. “The benefit of creating a coalition with a third party was they could puzzle together certain patterns that we as individual platforms could not.” 

Streamers try to work backwards from anomalies in the data, trawling for “potential bad actor networks,” as Pelczynski puts it, and trying to prevent them from “migrat[ing] from platform to platform.” Svenska Dagbladet took a different approach, speaking to several criminals who claimed to have direct knowledge of the laundering scheme. 

The paper reported that Swedish gangs take criminal profits, convert them into cryptocurrency, use that to buy fake streams for artists they’re connected to, and then collect the royalties. They lose some money in the process by paying for fake streams, but the royalties they extract from the music industry are now “clean” — they can’t lead back to anything gang-related. 

“There is always a cost in money laundering,” Trusty explains. But even if it’s a really high transaction cost, it still puts you in a position where you have untraceable, usable profit. And so the key for any real money laundering operation is volume. The article seems to be pointing out that this is something that’s kind of an institutional mechanism for these gangs.” 

Trusty was not surprised to hear about the results of Svenska Dagbladet‘s reporting. “Anytime you have technological developments, somebody’s going to figure out a way to take advantage of those in a bad way,” he continues. “It’s eventually in the industry’s interest to lean forward and figure out how to work with law enforcement to close this gap that’s being exploited.”

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