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Explained: Quishing (QR Phishing)

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Quishing is a phishing attack that cleverly uses QR codes to trick users into visiting malicious websites. When a user scans a malicious QR code, their browser goes to the website indicated by the QR code.

How Does Quishing Work?

Quishing attacks work like traditional phishing attacks. A phishing attack often involves an email or text containing a malicious link. When the recipient clicks on a link, they are directed to a phishing site that attempts to steal sensitive information—such as login credentials—or install malware on their computer.

Quishing attacks differ from traditional phishing attacks in how the link is formatted in an email. Instead of a text-based link, the malicious website is pointed to by a QR code. When a user scans the QR code, their device can extract the indicated link and take the user to that URL.

While quishing uses many of the same techniques as a traditional phishing attack, QR codes make it far more difficult to detect and block. Instead of a link embedded in a message — which can be detected by scanning the text of the email — a quishing attack uses an image that can be decoded to a URL. Identifying QR codes in emails and extracting the URLs is much more difficult than simply reading a link from the text.

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What Happens If You Scan a Fraudulent QR Code?

QR codes are designed to be easy and space-efficient to direct users to a website. Instead of typing in a URL, users can scan the QR code with the camera on their mobile device. A QR code-compatible app can decode the image to a URL that can be opened in a user’s browser.

Visiting a malicious website via a QR code has the same possible impacts on a user and their device as if they had visited it by other means, such as clicking on a link in a phishing email. The phishing site could trick the user into entering their login credentials or installing malware on their device.

The Quishing Challenge

Quishing poses a unique security challenge for organizations because it involves multiple devices. If a user receives an email with a QR code on one device, they will likely scan that code with another device to open the indicated webpage. This creates significant security challenges for an organization because users receiving quishing emails sent to their work email address may scan the malicious QR code using personal devices. These devices may not be subject to the organization’s cybersecurity policies and lack the same anti-phishing defenses, making it difficult to prevent, detect, and track potential compromises.

Companies also face the opposite risk when dealing with quishing attacks. A quishing email sent to a personal email will not be blocked by corporate anti-phishing defenses. If a user scans that email with a business device, the corporate device could be infected by malware if the threat is not detected and blocked by company security solutions.

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How to Detect a Quishing Attack

Some methods for detecting these attacks include:

  • Common Phishing Warning Signs: Quishing attacks may have misspellings, grammatical errors, lookalike email addresses, and other common red flags of phishing emails.
  • Text Analysis: Phishing emails commonly use emotional manipulation or try to create a sense of urgency to increase the success of their attacks. These efforts can be identified via natural language processing (NLP) or artificial intelligence.
  • QR Code Detection: QR codes are images embedded in a quishing email. Scanning images to see if they contain QR codes can help to identify these attacks.

How to Prevent a Successful Quishing Attack

Organizations and individuals can use various methods to protect against quishing attacks, including:

  • Educate Users: Teach employees about the quishing threat and the risks of scanning QR codes from untrusted emails.
  • Use an Email Scanner: Email scanners may be able to identify quishing emails based on text content, the QR codes themselves, or other phishing red flags.
  • Don’t Scan Untrusted QR Codes: Don’t scan QR codes from an unknown or untrusted source.
  • Check URLs After Scanning: After scanning a QR code, check the URL before browsing it or entering sensitive information.
  • Enable Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Enable MFA to reduce the potential impacts if user credentials are entered into a phishing site.

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