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Careful With That QR Code! Five Steps For QR Code Safety

Five Steps to Reduce QR Code Risk! Step one? Read this article…

For 20 million people, the temptation proved too hard to resist. For a full minute, a simple QR code ping-ponged back and forth on their television screens during a break in the action at the Super Bowl. Cryptocurrency company Coinbase reportedly paid 14 million dollars for that ad – but clearly, they got their money’s worth: 20 million people were redirected via QR code to their landing page, specially designed for the ad. 

Caution Flags 

The radical simplicity and irresistible pull of the Coinbase spot was the talk of the post-game ad reviews. But out of the din of this discussion came another message — this one from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Inc Magazine’s Jason Aten pointed to a warning they had issued a month prior to the big game – the first lines lay out the situation quite clearly:

The FBI is issuing this announcement to raise awareness of malicious Quick Response (QR) codes. Cybercriminals are tampering with QR codes to redirect victims to malicious sites that steal login and financial information.

QR Codes Are Back, And Bigger Than Ever

Once again, it seems that bad actors have seized on a popular trend to help them do their dirty work. A simple technology dating back to the 90’s, QR Codes are on the rise lately – as they’ve become a very effective digital tool for marketers who want to quickly convert mobile phone readers into shoppers and buyers. The Wikipedia entry on QR codes gives you a quick grasp of just how powerful they can be when scanned on a mobile phone:

QR codes may be used to display text to the user, to open a webpage on the user’s device, to add a Card contact to the user’s device, to open a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI), to connect to a wireless network, or to compose an email or text message.

All you have to do is think about how hackers might use that kind of power, and you can quickly see that indiscriminate scanning of QR codes could lead you into some serious trouble. 

Two Primary Sources of QR Code Danger

The first danger with malicious QR codes is the fact that they can transport you seamlessly to a fake website. As with most hacks, the first layer of the transaction seems to be legitimate: the QR code works! The user arrives at a site that has the offer or information they were seeking. 

And this is when many users will let their guard down, and fail to notice telltale signs that the site isn’t legitimate. Super-sweetened offers can also play a role in softening up otherwise careful users. The bad website can be a collection point for private information and financial data, and the path to financial losses and ID Theft is paved.

The second danger is QR codes that include malware themselves. Once again, let’s turn to the FBI for — “just the facts”:

Malicious QR codes may also contain embedded malware, allowing a criminal to gain access to the victim’s mobile device and steal the victim’s location as well as personal and financial information. The cybercriminal can leverage the stolen financial information to withdraw funds from victim accounts.

That’s about as bad as it can get. So, short of forsaking the use of all QR codes — how do you defend yourself?

What Can You Do?

Here are the five steps you can take – we discuss each below in more detail:

  1. Get informed about what QR codes are and what they can do.
  2. Make sure your device has good security software.
  3. Use that security software regularly!
  4. Before scanning any QR code, scan “the situation.” 
  5. Make sure you land where you expected to!

You’ll be glad to know that you’re well on your way to completing the first step. We hope this article has helped in this regard, and if you want to get even more up-to-date on potential threats to you and your mobile device, we highly recommend these two companion articles:

Six Ways That Cybercriminals Try To Take Over Your Device – QR codes are covered here along with several other traps, like WiFi Honeypots, Fake Apps, and even Subtitles in Streaming Apps. Do give it a careful read – lots to learn here.

Can a QR Code Be Used In A Phishing Attack? – If you’ve followed us so far, you know the answer to this question is YES! But hit the link to get more information on how QR codes can bait the hook for hackers’ big Phishing expeditions.

Security Help

If you’re using dfndr security, make sure you activate the anti-hacking feature to protect you from scams and malware. dfndr security PRO plan also has a dedicated Safe App function to help sniff out apps that contain malware, and also provides complete Identity Theft reports should you suspect trouble.

Eyes Up!

But your awareness is always going to be your first line of defense. Remember that QR codes primary benefit is to help you connect to a specific spot on the web without your having to type in a URL. The “fun” of seeing this work is no doubt a major part of the success of that Coinbase ad. 

If you decide you do want to scan a QR code – make sure you can verify it’s from a trusted source, and take a good close look at the surroundings: the copy and design, the context of use. Is the code stuck on a wall outside a club? Or did it come to you via a traceable source like a mass mailing? If you can verify that the code is from a trustworthy source – make sure the landing spot is what you expected it to be.  

Just remember what your friends in the FBI told you: a QR code isn’t a game to be taken lightly — or a Pokemon type game where you have to capture and collect. They serve a very specific function, and they’re more powerful than they look. Treat QR codes with the same caution you’d give to any unknown app or web address.