Phishing campaign tries to evade defences with QR codes

Threat actors are still using QR codes in phishing campaigns to trick employees into downloading malware or revealing their credentials.

The latest campaign included targeting an unnamed major U.S. energy company, according to research released this week by Cofense. Other top industries that have received these phishing messages include manufacturing, insurance, technology, and financial services.

The advantage of using a QR code that people are asked to scan with their smartphones to get a document, the report notes, is that a malicious URL can be hidden in the code and  won’t be spotted by suspicious employees. In addition, the smartphone the victim uses is outside the organization’s anti-malware defences.

The email message in this campaign warns intended victims they have to update their  Microsoft or Salesforce security by scanning the attached QR code with their smartphone. Those who do see a spoofed Microsoft or Salesforce login page where the victim has to enter their credentials.

Image of a phishing scam that uses an embedded QR code
This is the type of phishing message with an embedded QR code that victims get. Image by Cofense

An additional strategy of the threat actor is using URL redirects through the Bing search engine.

This phishing campaign, which started in May, is still ongoing.

“Although QR codes are advantageous for getting malicious emails into user’s inbox, they may fall short of being efficient in getting the user to the phish,” the report notes. “This shortcoming is due to the nature of QR codes as they need to be scanned by an image-capturing device. While online scanners exist and will show you where the QR code is going, the user is prompted to scan the code with their mobile device’s camera. However, modern mobile devices also show the embedded artifact and ask the user to verify the URL before launching a browser to the link, which allows the user to see where the link is going before accepting.”

While automation such as QR scanners and image recognition can be the first line of defense, the report adds, it is not always guaranteed that the QR code will be picked up — especially if it’s embedded into a PNG or PDF file. Therefore, the report says, it is also imperative that employees are trained not to scan QR codes in emails they receive.

The report is available here. Registration is required.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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