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QR Codes: What Are They and Are They Safe?

28th March 2024
QR codes are everywhere. You've probably seen them on product packaging, advertisements, restaurant menus, and even in museums. These square-shaped patterns may seem like nothing more than a fancy barcode, but they hold a world of information within them. However, with their widespread use comes concerns about security. Are QR codes safe, or do they pose risks to unsuspecting users? In this article, we look a little closer at QR codes, including what they are, the elements that make QR codes, and the safety issues when using them.

What is a QR Code?

QR stands for Quick Response, and that's precisely what these codes offer – a quick way to access information. Developed in 1994 by Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, QR codes were initially used to track automotive parts during manufacturing. Since then, their use has expanded dramatically.

At its core, a QR code is a two-dimensional barcode that stores data horizontally and vertically. Unlike traditional barcodes that can only hold a limited amount of information, QR codes can store much more data, including URLs, text, contact information, or even Wi-Fi network details.

How Do QR Codes Work?

A QR code consists of black squares arranged on a white background, along with a unique pattern in the corners that helps scanners determine the orientation of the code. When scanned with a smartphone or QR code reader, the device decodes the information stored within the code and performs the corresponding action.

The scanning device uses its camera to capture the QR code image. Software then processes the image, identifies the pattern, and extracts the encoded data. This data might be a website URL, prompting the device to open the website, or it could be a piece of text, prompting the device to display the text on-screen.

The Parts Of A QR Code

Below, we’ve listed all the parts that make up a QR, and allow them to contain and deliver the information we require.

  • Finder Patterns: These are the square patterns located at three corners of the QR code, helping the scanner to detect and orient the code correctly.

  • Alignment Patterns: These smaller square patterns assist the scanner in correcting any distortions in the image caused by perspective.

  • Timing Patterns: These are alternating black and white lines that help the scanner determine the size of the modules (individual squares) within the QR code.

  • Quiet Zone: The white border surrounding the QR code ensures that there is enough contrast for the scanner to distinguish the code from its surroundings.

  • Data Cells: These are the black squares that encode the actual data.

Are QR Codes Safe?

While QR codes offer convenience and efficiency, they also present security risks. Cybercriminals can exploit QR codes to lead unsuspecting users to malicious websites or initiate harmful actions on their devices. One common method involves creating QR codes that link to websites containing malware.

By disguising malicious URLs with legitimate-looking QR codes, cybercriminals trick users into scanning them, leading them to phishing sites, malware downloads, or pages designed to steal personal information.

These malicious QR codes can be distributed via email, social media, physical stickers, or even printed materials like posters and flyers. Unsuspecting users, eager to access what they believe to be legitimate content, inadvertently expose themselves to cyber threats.

How Cybercriminals Exploit QR Codes

Cybercriminals are forever looking for new ways to fool unsuspecting victims, and, with the rise in the use of QR codes, particularly since the Covid19 pandemic, they’re job is being made a whole lot easier.

Here are some of the ways cybercriminals exploit QR codes:

  • Malicious URLs: Cybercriminals create QR codes that lead to websites hosting malware, phishing pages, or other malicious content. Social Engineering: They lure users with enticing offers or urgent messages, encouraging them to scan the QR code without questioning its legitimacy.

  • Physical Tampering: Criminals can replace legitimate QR codes with their malicious counterparts on posters, flyers, or product packaging, exploiting the trust users place in these codes.

How To Use QR Codes Safely

QR codes have revolutionized how we access information, offering convenience and efficiency in various aspects of our lives. However, like any technology, they come with risks and need to be used with caution. Below, we’ve listed 3 rules of safety when it comes to using QR codes.

  1. Verify the Source: Always ensure that you trust the source of the QR code before scanning it. If you see a QR code in an unsolicited email, text message, or on a suspicious website, think twice before scanning it. Verify the legitimacy of the source and the context in which the QR code appears. Stick to scanning QR codes from trusted sources such as official websites, reputable businesses, or known brands.

  2. Inspect the QR Code: Take a moment to visually inspect the QR code before scanning it. Look for any signs of tampering, such as alterations to the pattern or unusual discoloration. If the QR code appears to be damaged or manipulated, refrain from scanning it and report it to the appropriate authorities if necessary. Additionally, be cautious of QR codes placed in high-traffic areas or locations where they could be easily replaced with malicious alternatives.

  3. Check the URL: When you scan a QR code, take a moment to check the URL it provides. If it doesn’t match the URL of the website you’re looking for, whatever you do, don’t click it, and instead visit the website through your browser or download the app you’re looking for via The App Store or another legitimate app provider.

Conclusion

QR codes, like any technology are great, but use them cautiously, and always trust your instincts – if something doesn’t look right don’t scan, and definitely don’t click.

We hope you found this article helpful, and please pass it on to help other QR code users stay safe from cybercrime.

Cyber Security Expert Bedfordshire

If you’re looking for a cyber security professional in Bedfordshire, contact JamCrackers, a leading expert in helping businesses and other organisations protect their networks from the rising threat of cybercrime.