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woman scanning a QR code to make a payment
© Roman Zaiets |
Security & privacy

QR code scams are out of control – How to protect yourself

Imagine losing $15,000 in just a few seconds. It happened to a woman who scanned a QR code to take a survey and instead downloaded malware that drained her bank account.

QR codes are those black-and-white dot-based images you scan to open websites, menus and apps. You name it. But they’re also a sneaky way in for scammers, so much so that the FBI is warning you to think twice, too.

Here’s one of their most dastardly tricks

QR codes date back to the ’90s but exploded in popularity during the pandemic. I bet you remember scanning a few QR codes to open restaurant menus. One study found 84% of smartphone users have scanned a QR code at least once and about a third scanned one a week.

It’s much easier to scan a code than type in a URL, and criminals use that convenience to their advantage. 

Say you’re at the gas station 

You see a sign branded with the gas station logo that you can scan for a discount. What you didn’t realize is that someone covered up the real QR code with a sticker leading to a bogus site. Thieves are smart enough to make sites look like the ones you’d expect to visit. 

Just like that, you handed over your personal info or even payment details.

The same trick is used on parking meters

And in paid parking lots, at banks and in emails. Because you can’t see where a QR code’s URL leads before you snap a pic, you need to take some extra steps to protect yourself. 

At a meter that asks you to scan to pay? First, look for another option. Can you visit your town or city’s website directly? If not, go to the official website first, then scan the QR code. Compare and see if the site you were directed to looks similar or way off. If it does, that’s a red flag.

🚩 Pro tip: Run your fingers over a QR code before you scan it. Can you tell if a sticker was placed over the top of the original code? That’s a big red flag.

Remember, you don’t need an extra app

If your phone is relatively new, you don’t need a third-party app to scan QR codes. Just use your phone’s camera. Not sure how? I have steps outlined for iPhone, Samsung, Pixel and more.

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