QR codes are everywhere these modern days. Scan one with your phone and you can instantly visit a website, download an app, or get more info. Super convenient right? Absolutely, when they work properly! But as QR codes have exploded in popularity, so too have fake and malicious ones.
You’ve likely seen stickers and posters with QR codes in stores, on products, and at restaurants. They’re an easy way for brands to connect with customers and create personalized experiences. Many companies have started using the best QR code generator to create unique codes that redirect customers to their websites, social media pages, or special offers. However, the problem is, that you never really know where that code will take you when you scan it. And that makes QR codes prime targets for scammers and hackers.
So, how can you tell if a QR code is legit or fake? I’ll walk you through the methods I use to detect phony QR codes before I scan them. Having a few simple techniques up your sleeve can help you avoid malware, phishing sites, or other nasty surprises!
Look Around Before You Scan
Context is key when evaluating any QR code. Take a minute to check out where the code is located and how it’s presented before scanning it.
If the QR code appears professionally printed on a product, sticker, sign, or poster from a well-known brand, it’s less likely to be malicious. Scanning codes in a retail store, restaurant, or other legitimate business is generally safe.
Is that random QR code sticker on a gas pump or bolted to a utility pole? Don’t even think about it! There’s a good chance it’s someone trying to steal your info or hack your phone.
When in doubt, ask yourself: does this code make sense where it’s posted? Use your street smarts. If something seems sketchy, it probably is.
Inspect the Code
Visually examining a QR code can also help determine if it’s fake. Many times, scammers will simply print a sticker with a phony code that directs to a malicious site.
Try looking closely at the code square and make sure it’s a legitimate pattern of boxes, dots, and lines conforming to QR code rules. It should not be distorted or fuzzy. The black modules should have clear edges and be centered within their grid squares.
If the code pattern looks uneven, blurry or amateurish, steer clear. Legit companies put effort into generating proper QR codes that scan easily.
You can even run a quick Google image search on any questionable codes. If that exact code shows up in multiple other scam warnings, you know something fishy is up!
Shorten That URL
One key technique for assessing strange QR codes is checking the URL destination. But of course, you don’t want to actually visit the site until you verify it’s legit!
Many QR-reading apps let you preview the URL before opening it. You can also use a URL shortener tool to reveal the full hidden link. Plug the URL into a site like TinyURL.com to see where it really leads.
This can expose sneaky redirects to sketchy sites. If the QR code claims to go to apple.com but directs to a1234sdata43.xyz, it’s a scam.
Watch for App Permissions
When asked to download an app after scanning a code, be wary of what permissions it requests. Make sure the app only asks for access needed for its intended purpose.
For example, a coupon app shouldn’t require access to your contacts and photos. If a simple utility wants expansive permissions without good reason, abandon it.
Also, try searching the app’s name in your device’s app store. Does a known, reputable developer publish it? User reviews can also help reveal shady apps. Stick to downloading only well-known, legitimate apps via QR code.
To add an extra layer of protection, you can scan questionable codes in an incognito or private browser window. This keeps the rest of your data isolated if the code tries to drop cookies or other malware.
The scanning app may also have a private mode that opens the links separately from your normal browser. Taking incognito precautions prevents bad codes from interacting with sensitive info on your device.
At the end of the day, what does your gut tell you about that QR code? User beware still applies even with new technology like this.
If a code seems positioned to intentionally trick people, like one on a deceptive sign or sticker, don’t scan it. When in doubt, walk away.
And never scan a random code someone sends you unless they tell you what it is first. Blindly opening unknown links or downloading mystery files leads to trouble!
Apply a little situational awareness, skepticism, and basic common sense, and you can enjoy the convenience of QR codes without falling prey to scanners. Now you’re armed with inside tips to spot the fakes!
What are some telltale signs of a fake QR code?
Fake QR codes often have a distorted pattern, and blurry image quality, are placed randomly or illogically, have a suspicious URL destination, or ask for unnecessary app permissions. Codes that just don’t seem right for where they are located should be approached carefully.
Can you tell if a QR code is safe just by looking at it?
While scannable QR codes may look properly formatted, you cannot determine if one is safe or not just by visual inspection alone. Checking the URL destination and app permissions is also important. The context and placement of the code also provide clues to its legitimacy.
Will a fake QR code still scan?
Yes, fake or malicious QR codes are designed to scan properly in order to send the user to a dangerous site or app. They won’t necessarily alert your phone as a problem code. Always verify the URL destination before opening.
What should I do if I scan a fake code by accident?
First, close the page or app immediately without entering any sensitive info. Run a virus scan on your device to detect and remove anything suspicious. If the code was on a public item, consider reporting it to the business or location so they can remove it.
Is there a way to tell if a QR code leads to a safe site?
Unfortunately no, there is no 100% guaranteed way to validate a safe QR code on sight alone. Your best protections are assessing context, checking the URL, using private browsing, trusting your instincts, and exercising caution when scanning. Start by scanning codes only from known, trusted sources.