Click! Protect Yourself from QR Code Scams

Imagine paying $16,000 to park your car in a lot for a couple of hours. That’s what happened to one woman in the UK who fell for a QR code scam posted in a parking lot. 

As reported by The Independent, scanning the posted QR code with her phone took her to a phony parking payment site that stole her card info. After her bank blocked several attempted fraudulent transactions, the scammers contacted her directly. They posed as the bank and convinced her to open a new account, racking up the equivalent of $16,000 in stolen funds. 

Scams like that have spiked in popularity with crooks out there. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned of a fresh wave of QR code scams that have led to lost funds and identity theft. Not to mention infected devices with a glut of spyware, ransomware, and viruses.  

Yet even as QR code scams become increasingly common, you can protect yourself. And enjoy the convenience they offer too, because they can truly make plenty of transactions go far more quickly. 

What are QR codes? 

You can find them practically anywhere nowadays.  

QR stands for “quick-response,” thus a quick-response code. They look like a square of pixels and share many similarities with the bar codes you see on grocery items and other products. Yet a QR code can hold more than 300 times the data of a barcode. They’ve been around for some time. Dating back to industrial use in the 1990s, QR codes pack high volumes of visual info in a relatively compact space. 

You can spot them popping up in plenty of places nowadays. With a click of your smartphone’s camera, they can quickly whisk you away to all kinds of sites.  

You might see them pop up in TV ads, tacked up in a farmer’s market stand, and stapled onto telephone poles as part of a concert poster. Restaurants place QR codes on their tables so you can order from your phone. Parking lots post them on signs so you can quickly pay for parking (like above). Your drugstore might post them on shelves so that you can download a digital coupon.  

Anyone can create one. A quick search for “QR code creator” turns up dozens of results. Many offer QR codes free of charge. It’s no wonder they show up in restaurants and farmer’s markets the way they do. And now in scams too. 

As it is anywhere people, devices, and money meet, scammers have weaseled their way into QR codes. With the QR code scam, pointing your smartphone’s camera at a bogus QR code and giving it a scan, scammers can lead you to malicious websites and commit other attacks on your phone.  

How do QR code scams work? 

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 legitimate websites in the hopes you’ll follow them to a scammer’s malicious website. It’s much the same with a QR code, yet they have 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. You can’t spot clever misspellings, typos, or adaptations of a legitimate URL.  
  • Secondly, QR codes can access other functionalities and apps on some smartphones. 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. 

What happens if I click on a phony QR code? 

Typically, one of two things: 

It’ll send you to a scam website designed to steal your personal and financial info. For example, a phony QR code for parking takes you to a site where you enter your credit card and license plate number. Instead of paying for parking, you pay a scammer. And they can go on to use your credit card in other places after that. 

It can take you to a download that infects your device with malware. Downloads include spyware that snoops on your browsing and passwords, ransomware that locks up your device until you pay for its release (with no guarantees), or viruses that can delete or damage the things you’ve stored on your device. 

Where do phony QR codes show up? 

Aside from appearing in emails, direct messages, social media ads, and such, there are plenty of other places where phony QR codes can show up. Here are a few that have been making the rounds in particular: 

  • Locations where a scammer might have replaced an otherwise legitimate QR code with a phony one, like in public locations such as 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 email. 

Scanning a QR code might open a notification on your smartphone screen to follow a link. Like other phishing-type scams, scammers will do their best to make that link look legitimate. They might alter a familiar company name so that it looks like it might have come from that company. Also, they might use link shorteners that take otherwise long web addresses and compress them into a short string of characters. The trick there is that you really have no way of knowing where it will send you 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 legitimate uses from malicious ones. Online protection software can help keep you safe as well. 

How to avoid QR code scams. 

Luckily, you can follow some basic rules and avoid 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. Scammers send QR codes by email, over social media, and sometimes they even send them by physical mail as part of a “Special offer, just scan here” ploy. In all, if a QR code comes to you out of the blue, even from a friend, skip scanning it. See if you can type in a physical address to a site that you can trust instead. 

2. Check the link and the destination. Given that many QR codes lead to phishing sites, look at the link that pops up after you scan it. Scammers alter addresses for known websites in subtle ways — or that differ from them entirely. For example, they might use “fed-exdeliverynotices.com” rather than the legitimate fedex.com. Or they might use a scam URL followed by text that tries to make it look legit, like “scamsite.com/fedex-delivery.” (For more on how to spot phishing attacks, check out our full article on the topic.) 

3. Think twice about following shortened links. 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.  

4. Watch out for tampering. In physical spaces, like parking lot signs, scammers have been known to stick their own QR codes over legitimate ones. If you see any sign of altering or a placement that looks slapdash, don’t give that code a scan. 

5. Stick with your phone’s native QR code reader. Steer clear of QR code reading apps. They can be a security risk. 

6. Don’t pay bills with QR codes. Once again, you can’t always be sure that the code will send you to a legit site. Use another trusted form of payment instead. 

7. Use scam protection on your phone. Using the power of AI, our new McAfee Scam Protection can alert you when scam texts pop up on your phone. And as a second line of defense, it can block risky sites if you accidentally follow a scam link in a text, email, social media, and more. You’ll find it in our McAfee+ products — along with up to $2 million in identity theft coverage and restoration support if the unfortunate happens to you. 

QR codes—a handy, helpful tool that still calls for caution. 

QR codes have made transactions smoother and accessing helpful content on our phones much quicker. As such, we’re seeing them in plenty of places. 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. 

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