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QR Code Safety: What To Know Before You Scan

Ever wonder what QR codes really are and whether they are safe to scan?  This guide will walk you through what QR codes are and how to safely use them.

Person using their smart phone to scan a QR Code

While QR codes aren’t new, the COVID-19 pandemic saw a resurgence of their usage across a range of uses and industries. With studies predicting that QR code scanning will increase to nearly 100 million by 2025, it’s important to understand how they work and what you can do to keep your data safe.
Even if you’re already using them, you may never have stopped to wonder, “is it safe to scan QR codes?” Whether you’re an experienced QR code user or new to this technology, this guide will walk you through exactly what they are and how to use them.

What is a QR code?

Quick Response or QR codes, are square black and white barcodes that can be scanned with a mobile device. They typically link to a website or file like a PDF and are now commonly used in all kinds of businesses. 

During the pandemic, to avoid individual patrons touching the same menus, many restaurants started using QR codes to allow customers to pull up a digital copy of the menu on their phones. Scan-to-order and contactless payments can also use QR codes for quick checkout. 

As QR codes can hold significant amounts of data, they’re a helpful way to share information like manuals for building furniture, sharing Wi-Fi settings, and they can even be used in print media to encourage readers to scan the code and go to a business’s website directly from a physical ad.

There are two different types of QR codes—static and dynamic:
  • Static: These are free-to-use codes that can be scanned an unlimited number of times. But the information transferred when the code is scanned, like the website it takes a user to, can only be used once. If the information needs to change, another code must be generated.
  • Dynamic: These QR codes can be edited and updated whenever needed, with higher trackability for the person creating the code. This data can be incredibly helpful in learning more about who is using the code, where, when, and what device they’re using.

Are QR codes safe?

Like any other kind of technology, understanding QR code safety is important. Generally, these codes are safe, but scammers can take advantage of them and gain access to your data. Just like you should never click on an unknown email link, it’s best to not open a link from a QR code that you’re unfamiliar with or that seems suspicious.

Most QR codes cannot live-track when you scan them, so any of your real-time data is protected, and you cannot be personally identified whenever you scan a QR code on your device. 

The type of data these codes collect is around their usage rather than the people who are using them. As more browsers move to cookieless tracking options, QR codes help businesses gather first-party data while still keeping users of QR codes safe online.

Potential risks of using QR codes

Although many QR codes are legitimate and help users quickly access information online, there’s always an element of risk each time you use one. 

Phishing attacks, where cybercriminals use malicious codes and links to steal your information, are just as common with QR codes as they are with other technology, like emails. Legitimate QR codes can be replaced with scam ones, leading users to dangerous sites when scanned. 

Scammers can also direct users to websites where malicious code is automatically downloaded on a device, giving them access to your private information. Identity and financial theft can easily happen when scammers take over QR codes for payment portals, especially if users are prompted to enter their banking details into the website the code takes them to.

Recent examples of these QR code scams include emails being sent that spoofed  Amazon, claiming that users were invited to join a new product testing club and to scan the QR code to join. Scammers have even gone as far as placing physical stickers of new, fraudulent QR codes over the top of legitimate codes in restaurants or shops, making it appear as if they were the original. 

Tips for using QR codes safely

The best way to protect yourself and your data while using technology is to always be cautious of who you’re sharing information with. Don’t scan any QR code that you’re not sure about, especially when out in public. Be alert to any potential issues with QR codes you’re scanning—look to see if they’re originals or stickers placed over another code.

Avoid downloading apps using a QR code; instead, find the app within your device’s app store and always use your phone’s built-in camera when scanning QR codes—there’s no need to download a specialized QR code scanner app these days.

Always try to verify the source of a QR code. This is especially important if you’re sent a code via email. As with any other phishing attempt, cybercriminals will often create emails that look like they’re from legitimate businesses. So double-check the sender’s email address before scanning a code, or even call the business to see if they really did send the email.

If you do scan a QR code and are unsure about the website it’s taken you to, the best action you can take is to close the browser before entering any information. Although this won’t always help in the case of malware scams, it can help you avoid providing hackers and scammers with personal information like your banking details. 

Regardless of whether you use QR codes frequently, you should also ensure that your devices, like smartphones and tablets, are updated regularly. This is especially important if you’re using third-party apps for QR scanning, as updates are frequently made to many of these apps to patch bugs and security issues. Running the latest version of any software can help you avoid potential threats to your digital security.

Keep your personal data safe

As with many different types of technology, QR codes are generally safe to use and can make your life much easier. For example, paying via your phone or quickly looking at a menu thanks to a QR code can be much more convenient than other options.

But it’s still important to be vigilant and cautious as you use QR codes in your favorite restaurants, shops, and bars, or when browsing online. Learn more about how to safely manage your bank account on the go and stay safe online, especially around the holidays when hackers are more prevalent. 

Educate yourself on the types of online scams that may be out there and become familiar with how cybercriminals operate. The more you know, the easier it will be to keep yourself safe online and keep your personal information out of the hands of cybercriminals.