PSA | QR Code Scams Are Real (What They Are + How to Protect Yourself)

There’s a fairly new way of scamming people called “QRshing.”
Woman Scanning QR Code on iPhone Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock
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Unfortunately, people are constantly looking for ways to scam others, and technology has allowed criminals to increase the ways they can reach more victims to try to scam them and steal from them.

Whether it’s your data or your hard-earned cash, there’s always someone who will try anything to get their hands on it, including scamming you with QR codes.

There’s a fairly new way of scamming people called “QRshing.” This form of scam has become more popular over the last two years thanks to the worldwide pandemic, and it’s growing strong thanks to how easy it is to set up. Here’s everything you need to know. 

First, Let’s Learn What a QR Code Is

QR codes aren’t anything new, but they’ve become more popular thanks to smartphones: A Quick Response Code, or a QR code, is a barcode that contains a type of data code with an identifier or a tracker. People can use this identifier to redirect you to a website or an app. 

The first QR code was invented in 1994, and even though it was a huge hit way back then, thanks to smartphones and the pandemic, it became a valuable tool for businesses. For instance, some restaurants started using QR codes to share their menus or specials without having to publish them physically. 

Unfortunately, because a QR code is super easy to create and set up, anyone can make their own codes (even cybercriminals). 

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What Is QRshing?

QRshing, QR code scams, or even “Quishing” is a form of scam that combines phishing and QR codes. 

In case you don’t know, phishing is a type of scam in which a criminal will impersonate someone else to gain the victim’s trust. More often than not, they impersonate a well-known company like Google, Amazon, or AT&T and reach out to the victim, asking them for their personal data and credit card information, or may install malicious software on the victim’s device to later gain access to that private data.

QRshing works the same way, but instead of sending emails or text messages, the criminals just share their QR codes with the world and wait for someone to scan them. 

There have already been a lot of instances where scammers used QR codes to make people pay for fake stuff. Some people reported that they had fake parking tickets with QR codes they could use to pay instantly. Since the parking ticket seemed legit, they paid only to lose their money. 

Not only that, but scammers have also started sending emails with QR codes that immediately open your payment options. QR codes are harder for email services to recognize, so they might not go immediately to spam emails. They could then use these QR codes to redirect you to fake websites that can install a virus on your device. 

The issue is growing in the U.S., and places like Austin and San Antonio, Texas, have been a few of the places that have been hit hard with QR code scams. 

How to Avoid QR Code Scams

Unfortunately, you need to be very careful these days with everything you do, including scanning QR codes. Fortunately, there are ways to stay safe without being paranoid. Here are a few ways to avoid these scams. 

Don’t Scan QR Codes Embedded in Emails

As we mentioned before, email services aren’t that good at detecting QR codes, so it’s easier for scammers to use them against you. Unless you’re completely sure the sender is someone trustworthy, you should avoid scanning QR codes that you receive in an email. 

Use Your Phone’s Preview Feature

Whether they run Android or iOS, most smartphones come with a preview feature. When you scan a QR code, your smartphone should open a small preview window that’ll show you if the place you’re going is the actual website you want to visit. Use that to determine if the website looks shady or not, and don’t even think of opening it if something doesn’t look right.

Contact the Company If Necessary

If you really aren’t sure if a QR code is legitimate, you can try talking to the person or company behind the QR code. For instance, if you get a parking ticket with a QR code and you aren’t sure if it’s real, you should contact the police and figure out if it’s safe to pay using the QR code. 

Likewise, if there’s a QR code with a special offer from a company, you can try calling the company first to make sure the offer is real.

Report the Problem

If you’ve already been a victim of QRshing, you should report the problem so you can help other possible victims. Likewise, you should get rid of the QR code if you can so no one else can scan it with their phone. 

Avoid Scanning Random QR Codes

You might find random QR codes on the street, but you should avoid scanning them. I know it can be hard to resist temptation, but unless you know it’s a real QR code, it’s best to avoid it. 

Don’t Use QR Codes to Make a Payment

QR codes make it really easy to pay without having to do pretty much anything, but that can be dangerous. If it’s a fake QR code, you’d be giving your money away for no reason, so try to avoid using QR codes to make payments. Sure, it might take you a few extra steps, but it might be worth it. 

Avoid Sharing Data with Websites Opened with QR Codes

Your data is just as valuable as money for some people, and you might lose a lot more than money if you share your data with a shady website you opened with a QR code. If possible, avoid sharing too much or any personal information to websites you opened with a QR code.

Keep Your Devices Up to Date

Software updates are one of the quickest and easiest ways to keep your devices safe. The company behind your smartphone already knows about security issues with its software, and it’s constantly working on it to make it the safest it can be. So make sure to update your smartphone whenever you can to protect yourself and your data just a bit more. 

Stay Safe Out There

When it comes to scammers, they’re a dime a dozen. So it’s important for you to use your better judgment and stay safe when you see QR codes or receive unexpected emails that seem too good to be true.

Remember that the best rules are to avoid sharing too much information online and avoid paying up right away after visiting a website you accessed from a QR Code.

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