Are QR Codes Safe? How to Keep Your Privacy Intact


In its most basic form, QR codes are square arrangements of composite black and white squares with data stored inside. This data can be in the form of a website URL, a PDF file, landing page, questionnaire, video or audio, and more. They were developed to contain more information than their predecessor, the bar code. Now 25 years after their introduction, QR codes have found their way into many different industries and business functions. 

QR codes offer businesses a medium to take their audience online, allowing them to anchor endless digital content to physical touchpoints. Easier accessibility and an infinite array of custom design options have made QR codes a favorite among brands looking to engage customers in new ways. 

With this growth in business and user QR adoption, concerns about privacy and security have increased. This is mainly due to attackers who use the technology to install malware or gain access to personal and financial data. So are QR codes safe? And how should you protect yourself when using them? 


Are QR codes secure? 

QR codes are an innovative, secure technology, creating a virtual gateway that seamlessly takes users from a physical touchpoint to a digital destination. No manual effort is required on the user's part; all you have to do is point your camera at the code, and a small pop-up should appear on the screen.  

Given that QR codes are a physical-digital medium, they cannot pose a security threat until users enter the digital world through them. But since they're widely deployed as a digital portal in the physical world, attackers with malicious intent are finding new ways to hack into your device and steal private information. 

Potential QR Code Security Risks 

Nothing is ever built directly into QR codes that make them more malicious than a web browser or phone app. However, QR codes can be cleverly tinkered with as an offline-to-online channel for cybercriminals. Security concerns can turn users away or expose them to more online vulnerabilities, so it's essential to know the different methods scammers and hackers use to exploit QR codes: 

  • Social engineering or phishing attacks: Clicking malicious links is the same as scanning malicious QR codes. Scammers use social engineering tactics like pairing QR codes with suspicious text to fool people into scanning them. They can also exploit your curiosity and place a dangerous code in high-traffic public areas without any accompanying text. 
  • Replacing genuine QR codes in public places with malicious codes: Another QR code trick cybercriminals use is replacing original codes placed by a company at specific touchpoints with counterfeit ones. Users who scan such a code are directed to a phishing site or prompted for a malware attack. 
  • Financial theft: Scammers can take advantage of QR codes as payment methods by sending your money to incorrect accounts, charging higher prices, among other things. Capitalizing on the recent popularity of QR codes as payment has been much more prevalent in the last few years.  

Ensuring Your Privacy 

Rather than avoiding QR codes entirely, it's imperative to learn how to identify common signs of fraudulent QR coding. Here are a few golden rules for using QR codes safely: 

  • Look for signs of tampering: Scammers will often replace legitimate QR codes with fraudulent ones. Check for additional code stickers or other signs of tampering (like sticker removal or code modifications).  
  • Check the code for suspicious elements. Are there dubious frame texts around the code? Does the logo appear legitimate in the middle of the code? Does the code design match the brand's colors and specifications? These are all valid questions to think about before scanning the QR code. 
  • Verify the URL. After scanning a QR code, you'll get a notification on the screen immediately that should redirect you to the content you're looking for. You should check and verify the URL for malicious signs and only click if it's SSL certified. 

While QR codes are not malicious by nature, It's vital to ensure that QR code security best practices are followed from both a user and business perspective. As mentioned earlier, users need to be mindful of the security and authenticity of the QR codes they scan. And for businesses, communicating and signaling the authenticity of their codes is critical to getting more scans, clicks, and conversions. 

SeedSpark is proud to support our clients with industry-leading tools that help protect their networks throughout the year. By building a complete cybersecurity strategy, we ensure that businesses of every size have the enterprise-level cybersecurity needed to protect their data in today's ever-changing cybersecurity landscape. Contact our team for a free 30-minute security assessment, assessing today's technology, and identifying new opportunities to help you stay prepared and protected. 

Written by Kevin Kuhlman

As SeedSpark's Social Media & Content Specialist, Kevin takes pride in managing the online social presence of SeedSpark and their clients.

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