Scammers are using the newfound popularity of QR codes to dupe unsuspecting people around the world out of their hard-earned money with alarmingly simple tricks.
The prevalence of scams using quick response (QR) codes has grown around the world, especially in countries that are moving towards being cashless societies that are using the technology to make small transactions simply and quickly.
QR codes are essentially 2D barcodes that can be easily scanned by a smartphone, and can be quickly generated by anyone using a QR code app.
Most of the scams identified involve fake QR codes being stuck over real codes placed in shops or even parking fines, leading individuals to transfer money into the wrong bank account or inserting malware onto their device.
QR codes are not nearly as popular in Australia as in other countries, making the risk here significantly lower.
But a growing push to use these codes to facilitate small transactions could lead to the emergence of these scams locally.
A wide variety of these scams have been reported in China, a country which is leading the way towards being entirely cashless.
QR codes are widely used in China to purchase inexpensive groceries and other items, and for other activities like hiring a share-bike. In China, 98 per cent of people with a smartphone use their device for mobile payments, and this is increasingly being done through QR codes.
In one common scam in Shanghai, a driver who had parked in a restricted spot returned to his car to discover what looked like a parking ticket on the windscreen. The ticket ordered him to pay a 200 yuan ($41) fine by scanning the accompanying QR code.
The man did so, but a few days later still received a letter from the police saying he was yet to pay the fine.
The ticket with the QR code had been a fake, and the payment had gone to a private WeChat Pay account.
With the growing popularity of this scam, local police are now only giving out fines with QR codes in person, with tickets left on cars no longer having the codes.
Similar scams have also been targeting small business owners and sellers.
It’s common in China for vendors at markets to sell their items via QR codes, but scammers have started sticking different QR codes on items, leading buyers to unknowingly transfer money to the wrong account.
The same tactic has also been used to trick people trying to hire a share bike. Users are required to pay in advance to unlock a bike using a QR code, but these have been replaced by fake codes.
In the Guangdong province of China, it’s been reported that about 90 million yuan ($18.5 million) has been stolen via these QR code scams.
Similar scams have also been widely reported in the Netherlands, with a local police department recently issuing a warning.
The scam is so effective due to several reasons. QR codes are incredibly easy to generate, and near-impossible to tell apart by the naked eye, making it tricky to tell if a different code has been stuck over a legitimate one.
Real QR codes can also be manipulated or damaged in order to lead a user towards a fraudulent website.
Risks of these scams in Australia are currently fairly low due to low uptake in the use of QR codes to make payments.
But this could soon change.
In June this year, the New Payments Platform (NPP) Australia released a standardised QR code specification for the NPP.
This gives anyone looking to use QR codes to make sales the technical specifications needed to support these real-time payments.
“The NPP QR code standard provides a single common code for payment solutions across multiple payment service operators, as well as the ability to facilitate payments among different payment schemes, e-wallets and financial institutions,” NPP Australia CEO Adrian Lovney said.