How often do you scan QR codes without a second thought? What if that innocent decision could expose you to a growing threat in the digital landscape?

QR codes—short for quick response codes—have soared in popularity, becoming essential in our digital era. Originally designed for industrial tracking, their ease of use has made them a go-to tool for information sharing. There has been a shift towards digital payments in the smartphone era, and QR codes have become common in facilitating transactions and accessing data swiftly.

There are two main types of QR codes: Dynamic QR codes, which can be modified for regular updates but are susceptible to cyberattacks, and static QR codes, which remain fixed and stable but could be targeted by cybercriminals. As we delve into the world of QR codes, it is crucial to understand their dynamics and potential risks, shedding light on the darker side that accompanies their widespread popularity. 

What is a QR code phishing attack?

Quishing, also known as QR code phishing, is a type of cyberattack where cybercriminals exploit QR codes to trick users into providing sensitive information or downloading malicious content. They create realistic-looking QR codes, employ social engineering, and exploit vulnerabilities in QR code reader applications.

Quishing vs. common phishing attacks

Phishing attacks involve deceptive tactics to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information like usernames, passwords, or financial details. These attacks mimic reputable entities through seemingly trustworthy channels, such as emails or instant messages, with the primary goal of unauthorized access or theft.

Quishing attacks represent a nuanced twist on the conventional phishing schemes. Attackers use QR codes for easy distribution through various channels, such as print materials or emails, capitalizing on their ability to blend into everyday contexts. This method provides a quick and camouflaged means to redirect users to fraudulent sites, where they may unwittingly disclose sensitive information. Attackers benefit from the widespread use and trust associated with QR codes, exploiting the convenience and often bypassing users’ scrutiny of underlying URLs.

A step-by-step breakdown of the attack process

  1. Creation of malicious QR codes
    Cybercriminals design QR codes that appear legitimate but redirect users to fraudulent websites or prompt the download of malicious content.

  1. Social engineering techniques
    Phishers often use persuasive messages to manipulate users into scanning the malicious QR codes. These messages may promise rewards, discounts, or urgent alerts to create a sense of urgency or excitement.

  1. Distribution channels
    Malicious QR codes are spread through various channels, including phishing emails, fake advertisements, or even physical items like posters and flyers, exploiting unsuspecting victims across online and offline spaces.

  1. Camouflaging techniques                                                                                                                                                           Malicious QR codes are often crafted to be visually indistinguishable from legitimate ones, as attackers leverage camouflaging techniques. This involves mimicking branding, logos, and design elements to deceive users, taking advantage of the challenge in distinguishing between authentic and malicious codes.

  1. Redirecting to fraudulent websites
    Once the QR code is scanned, victims are redirected to fake websites that mimic legitimate ones, prompting them to enter sensitive information like usernames and passwords, or financial details.

  1. Downloading malicious content
    In some instances, scanning a malicious QR code may initiate the download of malware onto the user’s device, compromising security and potentially leading to further cyberattacks.

  2. Data harvesting and identity theft
    Phishers harvest the information entered by victims on fake websites, leading to identity theft, financial losses, or unauthorized access to personal accounts.

Real-life examples

In February 2022 in Atlanta, drivers found fake parking tickets on their cars with QR codes for supposed fine payments. After discovering this, local authorities alerted residents, emphasizing that genuine parking tickets in Atlanta do not include QR codes.

In the same year, a QR phishing campaign in China posed as the Chinese Ministry of Finance, enticing users with a fake government grant application. Victims were instructed to scan a QR code within an email attachment using the WeChat app. Upon scanning, users were directed to a deceptive page, where they unwittingly divulged detailed credit card and bank account information under the guise of applying for the non-existent grant. 

Protecting yourself from the QR code scam

  • Keep your smartphone’s operating system and security features updated to the latest versions.

  • Enable MFA for an extra layer of security to protect your personal information.

  • Exercise caution when encountering QR codes in emails, as they can be used for phishing attempts.

  • Employ web filtering through reputable security software to block malicious websites and potential threats.

  • Keep yourself updated on emerging threats related to QR code scams through threat intelligence sources.