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Don’t Get Tricked by These Common QR Code Scams



By now, you’ve gotten used to scanning QR codes — a barcode image used to store URLs and other information — with your smartphone camera app for all kinds of things. You can scan QR codes to access restaurant URLs, order takeout online, track packages and pay for parking, just to name a few ways the handy codes are used.

But did you know that some of those innocent-looking QR codes could be a scam, directing you to phishing websites, phony payment portals and device-infecting malware or viruses? That’s according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), which recently issued a warning about QR code scams.

“There are many legitimate and helpful uses for QR codes,” according to the BBB. “However, scammers are also taking note of the technology and using QR codes to carry out various schemes.”

Before you scan the next QR code for quick access to what you need, take a look at these common QR code scams and how to avoid becoming a victim.

QR codes have become increasingly popular in our digital age. These square barcodes allow users to quickly access websites, make payments, or receive information simply by scanning them with a smartphone. However, with the rise of QR code usage, scammers have also found ways to exploit this technology for their nefarious purposes.

What are QR codes?

QR codes, short for Quick Response codes, are two-dimensional barcodes that can be scanned by smartphones or dedicated QR code scanners. These codes were first developed in Japan in the 1990s for the automotive industry but have since gained popularity worldwide due to their versatility and ease of use. QR codes can store various types of data, including website URLs, contact information, or product details.

The convenience of QR codes

QR codes have revolutionized how we interact with the digital world. They offer convenience by eliminating the need to manually type long URLs or search for information. With a simple scan, users can access websites, download apps, make payments, or unlock exclusive content. The widespread adoption of QR codes by businesses and organizations has made them an integral part of our daily lives.

Understanding QR code scams

While QR codes provide numerous benefits, they also present opportunities for scammers to deceive unsuspecting individuals. It is essential to understand the different types of QR code scams to protect yourself and your personal information.

Fake QR codes

Scammers can create counterfeit QR codes that appear legitimate but redirect users to malicious websites or applications. These fake codes are often found on posters, flyers, or product packaging, tricking individuals into believing they will receive exclusive offers or discounts. In reality, scanning these codes can lead to malware installation or identity theft.

Malicious QR codes

Malicious QR codes are designed to exploit vulnerabilities in smartphones or QR code scanning apps. When scanned, they can trigger actions that compromise the user’s device or steal sensitive information. Malicious QR codes can be found in various places, including emails, social media, or even physical locations.

Common types of QR code scams

Scammers employ different tactics to carry out their fraudulent activities using QR codes. It’s crucial to be aware of these common scams to protect yourself effectively.

Phishing scams

In a phishing attack, scammers create QR codes that redirect users to fake websites resembling legitimate ones. Once on the fake site, users may be prompted to enter their login credentials, banking information, or personal details. This information is then harvested by the scammers for illicit purposes.

There’s no way to know where that QR code on a flier or in an email or text will direct you until you scan it. Scammers know that too. That’s why they count on you scanning QR codes that direct you to “phishing” websites asking for personal information and online passwords that could be used for identity theft or fraudulent transaction purposes.

Many QR scam attempts notify you of “suspicious activity” in one of your online accounts and ask you to verify your identity. Don’t fall for it. “In reality, the information provided is going to a scammer, which they then use for other purposes,” warns the BBB.

Find out: How to Identify a Tax Debt Relief Scam

Malware distribution

Some QR codes are specifically designed to distribute malware or malicious software to the user’s device. Once the code is scanned, the malware is downloaded and can lead to various consequences, such as data breaches, unauthorized access to personal information, or device hijacking.

Identity theft

QR codes can be used to gather personal information about individuals, which can then be used for identity theft. Scammers may create QR codes that prompt users to enter their personal details, such as social security numbers, addresses, or financial information. This information can be exploited to commit fraud or financial crimes.

Unauthorized payments

Scammers can create QR codes that appear to be for legitimate payment purposes but instead redirect funds to the scammer’s account. Users scanning these codes may unknowingly authorize fraudulent transactions, resulting in financial loss.

Fake parking meter QR codes

It’s becoming more common to pay for parking by scanning a QR code on the parking meter. But don’t be too quick to pay with a quick QR code scan. You could return to find your car towed or ticketed because your “payment” went straight to a scammer.

“Con artists can easily create a QR code for free online, which they then print on stickers and either cover up an actual QR code or place where it makes logical sense,” says the BBB.

If you have no choice but to pay for parking using a QR code, make sure you download the official city parking app, advises The same goes for universities, office parking garages or other entities that only have the option of paying for parking with a QR code app.

Restaurant menu QR code scam

In this scam, scammers place fake QR codes on restaurant menus. Customers scanning these codes are redirected to a fraudulent website that resembles the restaurant’s official site. They are then prompted to enter personal information or make a payment. The scammers use this information for unauthorized transactions or identity theft.

Event ticket QR code scam

Scammers create counterfeit QR codes for event tickets and sell them online at discounted prices. Unsuspecting buyers purchase these tickets, only to find out that the codes are invalid or lead to fake event websites. This scam results in financial loss and disappointment for those who were looking forward to attending the event.

Romance cryptocurrency scams

Some QR code scammers spend weeks or months gaining the trust of their unsuspecting victim under the guise of romance. Once trust is built, the scammer asks for financial assistance or pretends to advise their newfound soulmate on cryptocurrency investments with a QR code.

Once the victim scans the QR code to transfer funds to the scammer’s digital wallet, the deal is done and the “romance” is likely over. Or the scammer may come back for more. “Many victims lose thousands of dollars before they discover they are being scammed,” says the BBB.

Find out: 7 Signs Your Online Soulmate is Out to Scam You

Government and utility impostors

The BBB has received many QR code scam complaints from consumers who were contacted by scammers posing as representatives for utility companies or government agencies like the IRS or Social Security Administration. The phony agent typically notifies you that you have an outstanding debt or unpaid bill that must be paid immediately.

The imposter directs you to scan a QR code for an alternate payment portal, claiming the official portal is currently down. “The payment portal the victim is directed to often mimics the real portal down to the finest detail, providing a false sense of security that it is legitimate,” warns the BBB.

Signs of a fraudulent QR code

Detecting a fraudulent QR code can help you avoid potential scams. Here are some signs to watch out for:

Poor quality printing: Legitimate QR codes are usually clear and sharply printed. If you come across a QR code that appears blurry, distorted, or poorly printed, it could be a sign of a counterfeit code.

Suspicious URLs: Before scanning a QR code, take a moment to check the URL it will redirect you to. If the URL looks suspicious or different from what you expected, it’s best to avoid scanning the code.

Unusual behavior or requests: Be cautious if the QR code asks for unusual permissions or requests excessive personal information. Legitimate QR codes typically do not require extensive personal details or unnecessary app permissions.

How to protect yourself from QR code scams

Protecting yourself from QR code scams requires a combination of caution, awareness, and using secure practices. Here are some essential steps to follow:

Be cautious of unknown sources: Avoid scanning QR codes from untrustworthy or unknown sources. Stick to reputable websites, official apps, or physical materials from trusted sources. Confirm the QR code before scanning. If a friend sent the code, contact them to make sure they actually sent the QR code in your text message or email.

Verify the source and destination: When scanning a QR code, double-check the source and destination information. Ensure that the code comes from a legitimate and reliable source before proceeding with the scan.

Beware of short links: When you hover over a QR code, if a shortened URL appears, be careful. “Make sure you are confident that the QR code is legitimate before following short links, as it may send you to a malicious website,” says the BBB.

Install a reliable QR code scanner: Choose a reputable QR code scanner app from a trusted developer. Read reviews and check ratings to ensure the app is reliable and doesn’t have a history of security vulnerabilities.

Regularly update your device and apps: Keeping your smartphone’s operating system and apps up to date is crucial for maintaining security. Updates often include security patches that protect against known vulnerabilities.

Trust your instincts: If something feels off or suspicious about a QR code, trust your instincts and refrain from scanning it. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to potential scams.

Report suspicious activity: If you encounter a suspicious QR code or believe you have fallen victim to a scam, report it to the relevant authorities, such as your local law enforcement or consumer protection agencies. Reporting such incidents can help prevent others from becoming victims.

“Scammers often switch around the domain and subdomains for URLs or slightly misspell one word to make websites appear legitimate.”

Check with the associated business: Many businesses such as grocery stores and restaurants use QR codes for a smoother customer experience. Before you scan a QR code in an ad, however, check with the business to make sure the QR code is legitimate.

Get professional help to clean up errors in your credit report if you think you have been a victim of a scam.

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QR codes offer a convenient way to access information and services, but they also pose risks when it comes to potential scams. By understanding the various types of QR code scams and implementing protective measures, you can minimize the chances of falling victim to fraud. Stay vigilant, verify the source and destination, and report any suspicious activity to protect yourself and others from QR code scams.

Are all QR codes potentially harmful?

Not all QR codes are harmful. However, it is essential to exercise caution and verify the source before scanning any QR code to minimize the risk of falling victim to scams.

Can scammers hack my phone by scanning a QR code?

Scammers cannot directly hack your phone by scanning a QR code. However, they can exploit vulnerabilities in your smartphone’s operating system or QR code scanning app to compromise your device or steal sensitive information.

Can I trust any QR code scanning app?

It’s important to choose a reliable QR code scanning app from trusted developers. Read reviews, check ratings, and opt for well-established apps with a history of regular updates and security features.

What should I do if I encounter a suspicious QR code?

If you come across a suspicious QR code, trust your instincts and refrain from scanning it. Report the incident to the relevant authorities, such as local law enforcement or consumer protection agencies.

How can I report a QR code scam?

You can report QR code scams to your local law enforcement agency or consumer protection agencies. Provide them with all relevant details and any evidence you may have to assist in their investigation.

In this article, we have explored the world of QR code scams, their different types, and how to protect yourself from falling victim to these fraudulent activities. By staying informed and implementing security measures, you can safely enjoy the convenience that QR codes offer in our increasingly digital world.

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