How to Stay Secure With QR Codes?

Haseeb Awan
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January 6, 2023
Modified On
April 5, 2023

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Modified On
April 5, 2023

QR codes came into being more than two decades ago but were less common than they are now. This was because smartphones didn't exist, and people didn't just have cameras that could scan a complex code to take them to a website as they do now. Fast forward to today, and QR codes are everywhere. Almost every business makes use of a QR code in some capacity. However, many people do have concerns about QR codes for security purposes. 

With how common QR codes are these days, it is not difficult to imagine how they are being used to conduct cyber crimes lately. When cases of people becoming victims of cyber crimes using QR codes became common, the security of these codes naturally came into question. 

Why Use QR Codes?

QR codes can be considered the complex and more mature version of a barcode. If you have seen a barcode, as the name suggests, it is a code with bars of varying widths alternating, containing a small amount of information, usually regarding a product. A QR code, like a barcode, also consists of information. However, QR codes can carry a more considerable amount of information compared to a barcode. 

You have probably used a QR code at some point in your life, and you must know how much information it can contain. QR codes can contain links that redirect you to a website and can be used for verification purposes, and they can carry passwords, product information, menus, and even locations. And yes, there are other ways to share this information, such as over an instant messaging app or email. But if a business wants many people to visit their page, they can release a QR code and paste it somewhere where people can see and use it. Some people will also scan a QR code out of curiosity. It is much more convenient than sharing through an app. 

Other than that, scanning a QR code is also incredibly easy. Every smartphone these days has an in-built QR reader function in its cameras. So all you have to do is point your camera at the code, and your phone will read it and direct you to the necessary information. You do not need a particular device, such as a barcode reader, and you don't need to sign up for anything. It is just a great, handy tool to have. 

Understanding QR codes for security is also relatively easy. It is important to remember that QR codes are just a tool used by businesses and brands. There is nothing inherently malicious about the use of QR codes. So even though some criminals might leverage these codes to their advantage, you should not be on your toes every time you see a QR code. 

How Secure Are They?

QR codes are just tools. They are usually used for harmless purposes. One use case of QR codes occurred in restaurants after the Covid-19 pandemic. Restaurants replaced their menus with online menus, which were accessible by scanning QR codes. Now, a restaurant is doing this for the safety of their customers and their convenience as well. There is likely no ill intent behind this use of a QR code. So naturally, you can expect the code to be safe to access in this regard. 

And this is the case for most use cases of QR codes. If you trust the source of the code, you can be sure that the information behind the code is also trustworthy. 

However, many cases have also been of QR codes used for malicious activities. For example, some hackers can replace authentic, non-malicious QR codes with their malicious codes on a website. If the code is seen in person, they can put a sticker of their code on top of it. Sometimes they can hack the website linked to in the code as well. And there have also been many cases of people falling prey to such activity. Therefore, it is understandable if people are raising questions about QR codes for security purposes. 

And the reason why scamming through QR codes is so easy is that it is just that easy to generate a QR code. You can do a quick search on generating QR codes on Google and find hundreds of websites allowing you to make your QR codes. You can add any information you want to the QR code you generate. And yes, this includes malicious information as well. 

This abundance of generators is another problem, however. Since there are hundreds of websites through which you can generate QR codes, you can assume that at least a few are malicious; you need to know which ones. So if you use the wrong website to generate the QR code for your website, you can end up with a malicious code that way as well. 

Therefore, even though QR codes are inherently just tools, they can easily be used for malicious activities online. 

How QR Codes Can Be Malicious

So how exactly can QR codes be used for malicious activity? Most of us do not fall for QR code scams and find that most QR codes for security are just fine and perfectly safe. Their malicious use cases can be a little concerning too. Here are some ways in which QR codes can be used for malicious activity:

Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks are, to date, some of the most common cybercrimes that criminals can indulge in. With QR codes, the criminals could entice the user into scanning the code to get a reward or be redirected to the site they want to visit. However, scanning the code instead of the desired outcome takes the users to a malicious website. Scammers and hackers can use this website to steal sensitive data, such as account credentials. Scammers can entice users into making credit card payments through that website or taking part in any activity that harms them without their knowledge. 

Social engineering plays a crucial part in executing a phishing attack. In many cases, the phishing attack looks fake, and only people with little internet experience are susceptible to falling prey. However, proper social engineering tactics can make it less evident that a phishing attack is being carried out. The attackers make the webpage look very authentic, and even experienced internet users can get scammed this way. So it is always important to trust the source of the code and look for signs of malicious activity on the website before surrendering private information to them.

Stealing

QR codes are also commonly used in payments, like making and verifying them. And many malicious users use QR codes to gain access to sensitive financial information from the QR code and steal from the user. Usually, when you make a payment on a portal from a malicious QR code, the money you send goes to a source different from the one you want to send it.

Clickjacking

Clickjacking is also a standard method of directing users from an authentic website to one where they can execute the malicious activity. When a user visits a click-jacked website, they can be bombarded with buttons that encourage them to click through and entice them in one way or another. Clickjacking raises a concern about QR codes for security, too, since the clicking results in downloading malware on the visitor's system. 

Replacing Genuine Code With Malicious Code

Many businesses put up their QR codes in high public traffic areas so that users will get enticed and scan the code. Hackers can often replace the code with their own by using a sticker to cover the original code and then encourage the users to scan it. This takes away from the authentic website and often targets many people at once. 

Tips for QR Code Safety

Yes, there are many concerns regarding QR codes for security, but there are ways to prevent getting scammed. If you practice safety when scanning QR codes, you can avert any attempt to scam you. So here are some of the best practices and tips which will prevent you from getting scammed through QR codes:

Check The Link Beforehand

Make sure you know where you are being directed to when you click on a link from a QR code. You get a small preview of the link when you scan it, and you can check it before you click on it. It is likely a trustworthy link if it is from the source you want to go to. If the address seems more outlandish and something you expected to see, you should refrain from clicking on the link. 

Sometimes links are shortened, so you cannot see the website's name on the link. If this is the case, you should do more digging before being redirected to the website to ensure that the code is authentic. Besides that, if the code takes you to a phishing link, you will likely see strange elements in the URL. Like Os being replaced with 0s or Es being replaced with 3s. You should avoid going to that site if you see elements like that. Other than that, ensuring that the website is HTTPS protected is also essential. This will be an added insurance of security that will prevent you from getting scammed on the website. 

One helpful tip is to slow down when accessing a website from an unknown source. Scammers take advantage of people being in a hurry and overlooking giveaways that the website they want to visit is malicious. Even a glance through the text will tell you of any discrepancies. 

Only Use Trusted Applications to Scan Code

There are hundreds of applications available on the Play Store which can help you scan a QR code. There was a time when the only way to scan a QR code was through third-party apps. However, every new smartphone nowadays has a built-in QR code reader in the camera. Alternatively, you can even use Google Lens to scan the code in question. This will prevent third-party apps from layering onto the code on the website and taking you to an unsafe address. 

Other than that, Google Lens and your phone's QR reader will probably have some security checks in place too. So they will ensure that the QR code for security is well-protected before allowing you to visit the website. Most third-party apps will not have this facility available on their platforms, and it will be much easier to fall prey to scams using a QR reader from another website. 

If you are using a third-party app, make sure it is from a trusted developer, and there is little to no chance of it being malicious. Checking reviews on the Play Store helps confirm an app's trustworthiness. 

Use Your Instincts

Most of us have spent a long time online and honed our instincts to determine what is authentic and what is a scam. Sometimes, when we visit a webpage, we can immediately sense that something is strange or slightly off about that page, even if we cannot precisely put our finger on what it is. When that happens, it is always essential to trust your instincts than go with the flow. 

It is the same for QR codes. You can often detect signs of harmful or malicious code before you scan it. For example, it could be lower quality than the rest of the text on the page. Other than that, you can take a look at the color scheme. If it doesn't match the business in question, that means there is something fishy about the code. 

If you pick up on any discrepancies around the QR code, you can deploy verification methods to determine whether the code is actual. You can even get in touch with the authorities if you are sure that the code is fake. 

Do Your Due Diligence Before Making Payments

Making payments is one of the most challenging aspects of being scammed through QR codes. If our payments get stolen, we are in big trouble. And most of us, at some point, have used a QR code to make or verify a payment. 

It is imperative to be vigilant about QR codes for security reasons. If you pay through a QR code, you should be directed to a safe-pay important. Each website with payment methods has some way of ensuring that the payment is handled safely. If you need more clarification about the website, you can choose not to go through with the payment there. 

Try to Use Multifactor Authentication

Multifactor authentication is one of the most common ways to ensure security today. Multifactor authentication ensures that your password is not the only thing you need to gain access to a website. You usually need to verify further with the help of your phone or your email address. If you see a code layered with MFA, you can trust it. Or else you can contact the authorities and suggest they implement this method. 

Securing QR Codes as a Business

If you are a business and want to know how to make concerns regarding QR codes for security less prominent, here are a few things you can do: 

Customize The QR Code

If you have your brand, there are likely certain elements that set your business apart and make it stand out more. Apply those elements to the QR code you generate to assure people that it is actually from your business and not a scam. 

SSL Certification on The Webpage

While SSL certification does not make a website safe, it is much easier to trust a website with SSL certification. So if the website is secure this way, the visitors can trust it more. 

Partnering with A Reliable Provider

There are specific certifications that a QR provider must have to be considered reliable. These include the SOC-2 Type-1 and Type-2 certifications. Letting your customers know that you have partnered with a reliable provider will also allow your customers to trust your brand more. It would help to display your certification with the code so that it is in plain sight of your customers. 

Password Protection

The data behind a QR code is accessible by anyone who scans the code. Therefore, if the QR code contains sensitive information, it will only be helpful to protect it with a password. Adding multifactor authentication would be an even better idea. This way, only a select few people can access the data, and you do not have to worry about it falling into the wrong hands.

Conclusion

QR codes are everywhere and have been an effective solution for many businesses. While there are many concerns regarding QR codes for security, there is no doubt that, for the most part, QR codes are safe. Using good QR scanning practices will help eliminate most of these concerns immediately. Seasoned internet users will be able to distinguish between scams and actual codes, and we can only expect better things from such technology in the future. 

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Haseeb Awan
CEO, Efani Secure Mobile

I founded Efani after being Sim Swapped 4 times. I am an experienced CEO with a demonstrated history of working in the crypto and cybersecurity industry. I provide Secure Mobile Service for influential people to protect them against SIM Swaps, eavesdropping, location tracking, and other mobile security threats. I've been covered in New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Mashable, Hulu, Nasdaq, Netflix, Techcrunch, Coindesk, etc. Contact me at 855-55-EFANI or haseebawan@efani.com for a confidential assessment to see if we're the right fit!

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