What are QR code scams and how can you avoid them?

April 5th · 12 min read

Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|
Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|

The rising threat of QR code scams

Remember the days when you had to print out physical tickets before going to a concert or heading to the airport? While I’m sure some of you still do that (myself included), Quick Response codes, or QR codes for short, have totally revolutionized the way we transfer and get information. These little square boxes, that are easily scanned and interpreted by smartphones, have transformed the way we handle daily tasks. From browsing restaurant menus to boarding flights and paying for parking, these codes have simplified it all, enhancing the efficiency and convenience of our everyday interactions.

However, as we've become increasingly reliant on QR codes, their simplicity and ubiquity have opened a Pandora's box of digital dangers – namely, QR code scams.

FTC: Scammers hide harmful links in QR codes to steal your information

In this article, we'll explore the hidden dangers lurking behind QR codes and shine a light on some of the most cunning QR code scams out there. We’ll also guide you through practical ways to avoid them and show you how leveraging tools like Guardio can give you that extra layer of protection from these types of scams. Let’s dive in!

QR code or scam - Why risk it?

Guardio keeps you safe from QR scams so you can surf risk-free!

Wall of QR codes

QR codes: A brief history

Before we get into the dark side of QR codes, let’s go back in time to 1994, when a Japanese company named Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, first invented QR codes. Initially, QR codes were designed to track automobiles and parts during the manufacturing process and offered a significant advantage over traditional barcodes due to the fact that they could store much more information. Their design was inspired by the need for speed and efficiency in tracking, hence the name 'Quick Response'. Unlike traditional barcodes, which can only be read in one direction, QR codes carry information in both vertical and horizontal dimensions, allowing them to hold a greater volume of data, including alphanumeric text, symbols, and binary data.

QR codes have evolved significantly since they first burst onto the scene 30 years ago. The real surge in their popularity came with the birth of smartphones. As we mentioned, initially, QR codes were used mainly in industrial settings, but the introduction of smartphones with cameras capable of reading these codes transformed their use. By the early 2010s, QR codes had become widely adopted in consumer advertising and product packaging, providing a quick and easy way to connect consumers to websites, videos, and other digital content. The COVID-19 pandemic further pushed their use globally, as businesses and organizations needed contactless ways to share information, from restaurant menus to health information, making QR codes a staple in our lives.

These days, businesses use QR codes for marketing purposes, linking them to everything from online ads to login pages and payment processors. For businesses, it’s a no-brainer, as QR codes are super easy to make and cost literally nothing to create one. All you need to do is use an online QR generator, it’s that easy. And scammers are well aware of that…

QR code scams

The ease of creating QR codes and the fact that we can’t really read them presents a golden opportunity for scammers. Because it’s physically impossible for us to read them without using our phones, we can’t really tell if they’re legit or not. So we often scan them without even thinking twice, putting our full trust in their legitimacy.

Normally, you would point your camera at a QR code, which then gets scanned by your phone, decoding the information to direct you to a specific website, display a message, or even add contact details to your phone. This forces us to trust that the code will direct us to the intended URL or perform the expected action. This trust is exactly what cybercriminals exploit. They cleverly alter or swap out genuine QR codes, leading people to malicious sites instead of their intended destinations. These harmful websites are cunningly designed to swipe your sensitive data. Without even realizing it, you might be inputting your information into a bogus payment system or a deceptive login page that closely mimics the real thing.

On top of that, scammers strategically place their QR codes in locations where we typically expect to see them, such as in restaurants, parking meters, or embedded in emails. This strategic placement is a calculated move, waiting for us to unsuspecting scan the code and fall for the trap.

Types of QR code scams

QR code scams are diversified and target various aspects of our daily lives. Each scam is uniquely crafted to exploit specific situations, making it crucial for us to stay alert whenever we encounter one. Here are some of the most popular QR codes to watch out for:

  • Parking meter scams: Scammers replace genuine QR codes on parking meters with fraudulent ones. Yes, that’s right, they print out QR codes that they’ve created and stick them on parking meters. A recent example of this occurred in Texas, where scammers strategically placed fake QR codes on parking meters. These fraudulent codes redirected drivers to a phony website, leading them to believe they were paying for parking. Instead, they were unknowingly making payments to the scammers, compromising their credit card details in the process

  • Email phishing with QR links: In this type of scam, scammers craft phishing emails that include malicious QR codes. In most cases, these emails appear to come from familiar sources, like your utility provider or a well-known company, which adds a layer of trust and legitimacy. However, if you scan the code, you’ll be redirected to deceptive websites specifically designed to steal personal information or infect your device with malware.

  • Restaurant menu QR code scams: Picture yourself in a cozy restaurant eager to order your favorite vegan jackfruit burrito. You scan a QR code, expecting to pull up the menu. However, in this scam, these seemingly harmless QR codes have been tampered with by fraudsters. Instead of the menu, you're taken to a fake website that meticulously mimics the restaurant's page, asking for personal details or credit card information. So instead of grabbing a quick lunch, you’ll be served a shady trap that could compromise your personal or financial information. Ouch!

Cafe with QR code
  • Bogus package delivery QR codes: In this scheme, you might receive physical mail that includes fake QR codes, expertly disguised to look like they're from legit organizations. When you scan these QR codes, expecting to access an official website or an important document, you're actually redirected to a fake site. These sites are designed to deceive and are often set up to gather your personal information or financial details. This scam plays on the trust we usually have in postal communications, turning a simple act like scanning a QR code into a risky move that could expose your sensitive data to scammers.

  • Social media QR code frauds: Scammers distribute malicious QR codes through social media platforms, often implanted in too-good-to-be-true offers or urgent messages - and you can guess what happens when you scan the code? That’s right, you’ll be navigated to a phishing site or malware will be downloaded to your device.

  • Cryptocurrency QR scams: These involve QR codes that supposedly lead to cryptocurrency transactions. Instead, they redirect to fraudulent wallets or platforms, resulting in financial losses for people who were attempting to transfer digital currencies.

Each of these scams highlights the importance of cautious QR code usage. So next time you're about to scan a QR code, take a moment to think about who's really behind it.

How to spot fake QR codes: Red flags

When it comes to identifying QR code scams, there are a number of red flags you need to be aware of. Here are some essential red flags to look out for:

Unusual placement: If a QR code appears in an unexpected place like ATMs, public bathrooms, or public transit, or seems out of context, it's smart to be cautious.

Too-good-to-be-true offers: Be careful of QR codes that promise over-the-top rewards, as they’re often bait set up by scammers.

Physical tampering: If a QR code looks like it has been stuck over another code or is placed in a suspicious manner, it's best to avoid scanning it.

No official branding: If you’re scanning a QR code for a brand like Nike, but there are no signs of recognizable branding or logos associated with the QR code, it’s probably fake.

Unsolicited codes: If you receive a QR code through unsolicited emails or messages, the alarm bells should be ringing!

Urgency in action: If an email, text message, or other form of communication prompts you to scan a code immediately or has a sense of urgency, don’t do it!

Mismatched URLs: URLs that don’t match the expected destination or seem suspicious when you scan them are a total red flag.

Poor quality prints: Stay away from blurred or poorly printed QR codes, which might indicate a hasty, unofficial production.

While some of these red flags may seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how easily they can be overlooked. Here’s an example of how this could play out in the real world.

A QR code scam in action

It all started when Alex got an email that seemed to be from his telecom company, asking him to update his account settings. The email included a QR code as a quick and convenient way for him to access his account update page. Without giving it a second thought, Alex scanned the QR code, which redirected him to a website designed to mirror his provider's site. With no hesitation, he entered his login information.

 Alex being scammed

The scammers behind the QR code quickly capitalized on the access they gained to Alex's social media accounts. They began sending out shady QR codes to Alex's contacts, posing as Alex himself, thus risking his friends and family with the same scam. The situation took a graver turn when these scammers, armed with Alex's personal information, executed unauthorized financial transactions from his accounts. By the time he realized it, it was already too late, and the scammers had already caused a considerable amount of financial damage.

This could have all been avoided if Alex had been using Guardio’s app and browser protection. If he had Guardio installed when he interacted with the QR code, Guardio would have immediately alerted him, blocked the phishing site, and prevented the initial compromise of his personal information.

Guardio keeps you safe from QR code scams and other online threats:

Enhanced browser security: On mobile or desktop, Guardio keeps your browsing protected against deceptive websites, risky extensions, malicious downloads, and other online dangers. So if you ever scan a QR code and get navigated to a sketchy site, Guardio will immediately block it!

Threat notifications: Guardio will send you real-time alerts about any online dangers that come your way.

Email protection: Guardio keeps your inbox secure by identifying and warning you of any phishing attempts that might involve QR codes and other deceptive tactics that might bypass traditional spam filters.

SMS phishing security: With Guardio's SMS phishing protection, you can trust that your text messages are secure and free from deceptive content.

Account protection: Like, share, and comment at ease, knowing that Guardio prevents unauthorized access and hijacking of your social media and other online accounts.

Security for the whole family: Guardio extends its security to up to five family members, ensuring everyone’s safe against QR code scams and other online threats like fraud, identity theft, and security breaches on all devices.

Risk-free 7-day trial: Enjoy Guardio's complete protection with a 7-day free trial, offering a straightforward way to evaluate its effectiveness without commitment.

QR codes can be convenient, but could also be a hidden trap

Guardio blocks sketchy phishing attempts, so you can scan QR codes risk free!

Best practices for QR code safety

To stay safe from QR code scams, and other online dangers, there are a few easy steps you can take to significantly enhance your security:

Be cautious with QR codes: Think twice before scanning a QR code. Be especially careful if the code is found in an unusual or unexpected location. Take a moment to inspect the code; if it includes a URL, check for any misspellings or odd characters, as these can be a sign of fraud.

Update your phone: Regularly update your smartphone’s operating system to the latest version. This helps patch any security vulnerabilities and enhances overall protection.

Strengthen passwords: Use strong, unique passwords for your online accounts, and avoid common phrases or easy-to-guess combinations.

Use multi-factor authentication (MFA): MFA adds an extra layer of protection and ensures that only you can access your personal accounts. Even if a scammer obtains your password, MFA can prevent unauthorized access.

Install security software: Guardio’s extension and mobile app, for example, offer full protection against various online threats, including QR code scams. You’ll be alerted if you ever come across dangerous websites, and it’ll block malicious activities, giving you that extra layer of protection in the online digital jungle.

By using these tips, you can seriously reduce the risk of falling victim to QR code scams and other online threats.

The bottom line

The evolution of QR codes from a simple tracking tool to a ubiquitous part of our digital interactions has opened up new avenues for cybercriminals. These scammers skillfully manipulate QR codes to exploit the inherent trust we place in this technology. As we've seen, these scams can range from phishing attacks to more complex schemes involving social media and financial theft.

The key takeaway from what we’ve discussed is that advanced cybersecurity solutions like Guardio are essential to keep us safe. As you navigate through the complexities of the digital world, remember to stay safe, secure, and one step ahead of the ever-evolving landscape of online threats.

Do not scan that QR code

Before scanning any QR code, protect yourself Guardio!

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