In a world of contact-free pickup and payments, an old hacker’s trick is getting a new look—phony QR code scams.
QR codes have been around for some time. Dating back to industrial use in the 1990s, QR codes pack high volumes of visual information in a relatively compact space. In that way, a QR code shares many similarities with a barcode, yet a QR code can hold more than 300 times the data of a barcode.
With the rise of the smartphone, QR codes have taken on more consumer applications. Especially in the latter days of the pandemic in the form of contact-free conveniences. Now, by pointing your smartphone’s camera at a QR code, you can order food at a restaurant, pay for parking, download coupons from the shelf at your drugstore or several other convenient things.
Yet as it is in places where people, devices, and money meet, hackers are there with a scam ready to go. Enter the QR code scam. By pointing your smartphone’s camera at a bogus QR code and giving it a scan, hackers can lead people to malicious websites and commit other attacks on their phones.
The good news is that there are several ways you can spot these scams, along with several other ways you can avoid them altogether, all so you can get the best out of QR code convenience without the hassle.
QR code scams: a new twist on an old trick
In several ways, the QR code scam works much like any other phishing attack. With a few added wrinkles, of course.
Classically, phishing attacks use doctored links that pose as a legitimate website in the hopes you’ll follow them to a hacker’s malicious website. Once there, that site is designed to trick you into providing your personal information, credit card numbers, and so forth, perhaps in the context of a special offer or a phony account alert. Likewise, it could send you to a site that simply infects your device with malware.
It’s much the same with a QR code, yet here’s are a couple of big differences:
- The QR code itself. There’s really no way to look at a QR code and determine if it’s legitimate or not, such as by spotting clever misspellings, typos, or adaptations of a legitimate URL.
- Secondly, QR codes can access other functions and apps on your smartphone. Scammers can use them to open payment apps, add contacts, write a text, or make a phone call when you scan a bogus QR code.
Where do phony QR codes show up?
Aside from appearing in emails, direct messages, in social media ads, and such, there are plenty of other places phony QR codes can show up. Here are a few that have been making the rounds in particular:
- Locations where a hacker may have replaced an otherwise legitimate QR code with a phony one, like in public locations such as in airports, bus stops, and restaurants.
- On your windshield, in the form of fake parking tickets designed to make you think you parked illegally and need to pay a fine.
- They can also show up in flyers, fake ads on the street, and even phony debt consolidation offers by mail.
Scanning a QR code may open a notification on your smartphone screen to follow a link. Like other phishing-type scams, hackers will do their best to make that link look legitimate. They may alter a familiar company name so that it looks like it could have come from that company. Also, they may use link shorteners that take otherwise long web addresses and compress them into a short string of characters—the trick there being that you really have no way of knowing where it will send you simply by looking at it.
In this way, there’s more to using QR codes than simply “point and shoot.” A mix of caution and eagle-eyed consideration is called for to spot the legitimate uses from the malicious ones.
How to avoid QR code scams
Luckily some very basic rules about avoiding QR code attacks. The U.S. Better Business Bureau (BBB) has put together a great list that can help. Their advice is right on the mark, which we’ve paraphrased and added to here:
1. Don’t open links or scan QR codes from strangers. Unsolicited messages with these links or codes could lead you to a scam site or access the functionality of your smartphone in unwanted ways.
2. Some scams will appear to come from legitimate sources. Double-check and see if it indeed is. You can check the official website to confirm, such as by accessing your account or contacting a customer service rep to follow up on the communication sent to you.
3. Try alternative payment methods. If you receive a bill with a QR code for payment, see if there’s another way to pay it—such as on the company’s website or simply through online bill pay to their known, legitimate address. These are less susceptible to fraud. Likewise, check to see if the requested payment is legitimate in the first place.
4. Think twice about following shortened links. As mentioned above, shortened links can be a shortcut to a malicious website. This can particularly be the case with unsolicited communications. And it can still be the case with a friend or family member if their device or account has been hacked.
5. If someone you know sends you a QR code, also confirm before scanning it. Whether you receive a text message from a friend or a message on social media from your workmate, contact that person directly before you scan the QR code to make sure they haven’t been hacked.
6. Watch out for tampering. Hackers have been known to stick their own QR codes over legitimate ones. If you see any sign of altering or placement that looks slapdash, don’t give that code a scan.
7. Install mobile security. Comprehensive online protection software can protect your mobile devices as well as your computers and laptops. In this case, it can detect bad links associated with QR codes and steer you clear of accessing the malicious sites and downloads associated with them.
QR codes—a handy, helpful tool that still requires your caution
QR codes have made transactions smoother and accessing helpful content on our phones much quicker, especially in recent months as they’ve seen an uptick in use. And useful as they are like other means of paying or browsing online, keep an eye open when using them. With this advice as a guide, if something doesn’t feel right, keep your smartphone in your pocket and away from that QR code.