QR codes are all around us. They offer a quick way to take part in surveys, download useful stuff, and visit websites of interest. After all, pointing your phone at a picture is far easier than typing in an annoyingly long URL.
But their very convenience hides a significant drawback. With regular links, it’s possible to spot a trap with the naked eye. The red flags are well-known: typos or extra characters in the site address, a disguised redirect, strange domain zones, and so on. But as for QR codes, where that jumble of black squares might take you is anyone’s guess.
With a compelling example, in this post we explain how those harmless-looking squares can pose a threat, and how not to fall victim to scammers. The example in question is the story of a woman who lost US$20,000 by scanning a QR code when buying bubble tea.
20,000-dollar bubble tea
Many have encountered coffee-shop promos when visitors are invited to take a short survey in exchange for a free drink or a discount on a purchase. This often requires you to scan a QR code at the counter — a familiar, almost routine action. What could possibly go wrong?
That’s what a 60-year-old Singaporean must have thought, too. To get a free cup of bubble tea, she scanned the QR code sticker on the glass of the coffee shop door. As it turned out later, the sticker had been pasted on by cybercriminals. The scam code contained a link to download a third-party Android app in order, she believed, to take a survey. However, the app was malicious.
Once installed, the program requested access to the camera and microphone, and to enable Android Accessibility services. This built-in Android service allows criminals to view and control the victim’s screen, as well as to disable facial and fingerprint recognition — this way attackers can force the victim to type their banking app password manually, if needed. The scammers had only to wait for her to log in, intercept the credentials, and later use them to transfer all the money to their own accounts.
How not to fall victim
Since it’s impractical (and not really necessary) to avoid scanning QR codes altogether, we recommend the following:
- Check the addresses of sites that are linked inside QR codes carefully, and look for typical red flags.
- Make sure that the expected and actual content match up. For example, if the code was supposed to lead to a survey, logically there should be some kind of form with answer options. If not, close the site immediately. But even if the page arouses no suspicion, you should still be careful — it may be a high-quality fake (see the first point, and read our post about how to spot a bogus site).
- Don’t download apps via QR codes. As a rule, bona fide apps can always be found on Google Play, the App Store, or any other official platform. Apps from third-party sources shouldn’t be installed in any case.
- Protect your devices with a reliable security solution. A built-in QR scanner lets you check the link buried in the maze of squares. Also, our solution blocks attempts to visit malicious sites and protects you from the profusion of other threats out there in cyberspace.