chat
expand_more

The Rise of QR Code Phishing Attacks: Exploring Quishing Threats

QR code phishing is the newest iteration of phishing. Learn about the latest malicious initiative designed to evade organizational security measures and manipulate targets.
April 9, 2024

Bad actors have been using phishing emails to steal sensitive data for three decades. Impersonating a trusted individual or brand and manufacturing a sense of urgency, attackers deceive targets into providing private information like login credentials or bank account details.

Because email wasn’t initially designed with security in mind, early email platforms lacked the native functionality to proactively detect and block phishing attacks. Additionally, threat actors had the benefit of end-user naivete—targets had no reason to believe the sender was anyone other than the person or company they claimed to be.

Over time, however, as email security tools evolved and end users became more aware of common attack ploys, cybercriminals had to adjust their tactics and adopt more sophisticated approaches. QR code phishing, the newest iteration of phishing, is the latest in a long line of malicious initiatives designed by enterprising attackers to evade organizational security measures and manipulate targets.

Hook, Line, and Cybercrime: The Growth of Quishing

This evolution in strategy is part of the broader history of phishing, which is characterized by opportunistic threat actors capitalizing on innovations in communication that have led to an increasingly interconnected world.

For example, spear phishing, a more targeted form of phishing that began to emerge at the turn of the millennium, became a viable option when bad actors realized they could make their attacks more personalized (and more convincing) by harvesting the wealth of data available online.

Similarly, the rise of voice phishing (vishing) and SMS phishing (smishing)—two attack strategies that started gaining prominence in the 2010s—was facilitated by the pervasiveness of cell phones and the popularity of texting. And now, in the 2020s, we have QR code phishing.

There are multiple factors that contributed to the rapid increase in phishing attacks that utilize malicious QR codes:

Ubiquity

Since 2020, scanning QR codes has become a common element of everyday activities like making payments and checking into appointments. Hence, receiving an email requesting we scan a QR code to reset a password or access a document is unlikely to trigger suspicion—a fact attackers exploit.

Novelty

Cybersecurity awareness training underscores the importance of not clicking links in unexpected emails. The advantage of QR codes is that they achieve the same goal of redirecting targets to a phishing page but may not raise alarms the way a standard link-based phishing attack might.

Signal Scarcity

Unlike traditional email threats, quishing attacks contain minimal text content and no obvious URL, which significantly reduces the number of signals available for legacy security tools to analyze and use to detect an attack.

Mobile Device Vulnerability

Using a QR code moves the attack from the recipient’s company-controlled laptop to the target’s personal mobile device, which lacks the lateral protection and posture management available in a cloud-based business environment.

How Threat Actors Use Malicious QR Codes in Phishing Attacks

While malicious QR codes sent via email can be used for a variety of purposes, they are primarily utilized for credential phishing. Indeed, 90% of QR code attacks detected by Abnormal are credential phishing attacks.

In quishing attacks, the QR code is linked to what appears to be a legitimate website (often an emulation of a Google or Microsoft login page) with a prompt to enter login credentials or other sensitive details. Unfortunately, any information provided can then be used by the perpetrator to compromise the target’s account and launch additional attacks.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) Activation

In approximately 27% of all quishing attacks, threat actors send fraudulent notices related to multi-factor authentication (MFA)—as shown in the real-world example of a quishing attack below.

QR Code Phishing Blog Microsoft MFA Email

Example of a QR code phishing attack designed to appear as a notification from Microsoft

The cybercriminal attempts to compel the target to scan the malicious QR code by claiming it is the first step in setting up the multi-factor authentication required by their organization. The subtext is that failure to do so will mean losing access to their Microsoft 365 account, which would significantly inhibit their ability to do their job—causing them to be highly motivated to act quickly.

Shared Document Notification

The second most popular strategy, used in approximately 21% of all QR code attacks, is to send targets fake notifications of a shared document. In this example, the attacker informs the target their signature is required on a pending document and claims they can view and sign the document by scanning the included QR code.

QR Code Phishing Blog Docu Sign Email

Example of a QR code phishing attack crafted to resemble a DocuSign notification

Quarantined Message Alert

While the most prevalent attack themes center on multifactor authentication and notices of shared documents, these certainly aren’t the only tactics bad actors use in quishing attacks.

Another recurring, albeit less common, strategy is sending targets an email claiming they have messages that have been quarantined by Microsoft 365, as in the following example. By being deliberately vague about what types of messages are on hold, the hope is the target will be enticed to scan the QR code to find out more details.

QR Code Phishing Blog Quaranted Messages Email

Example of a QR code phishing attack impersonating an alert from Microsoft

In each of the examples above, the perpetrators utilize social engineering to establish trust and manufacture a sense of urgency. For example, they all integrate some level of the impersonated company’s branding into the messages. The threat actor in the first example even goes one step further and incorporates the attack motif into the sender name.

To instill worry and spur action, the MFA-themed attack claims the target is at risk of losing access to important applications. And because the use of DocuSign is generally reserved for important and/or confidential documents, cybercriminals know posing as that company and claiming financial documents are in need of attention will likely convince the target to act quickly.

Additionally, many of the QR code attacks stopped by Abnormal are sent from an iCloud address, as in the last example. Because iCloud.com is a legitimate sender domain, the emails pass SPF, DKIM, and DMARC checks, which improves the likelihood of a legacy security solution marking the email as safe.

Blocking QR Code Attacks to Keep Organizations Safe

Cybercriminals have repeatedly showcased their impressive ability to identify new ways to exploit everyday communication tools to convince employees to reveal confidential information or execute fraudulent transactions.

With the emergence of each new attack strategy, it becomes increasingly evident that traditional email security solutions like secure email gateways (SEGs) are unable to defend against cybercriminals' constantly changing tactics. Organizations must recognize the shortcomings of SEGs and invest in modern solutions that use AI-native detection engines to stop advanced threats like QR code phishing before employees can engage.

Download our CISO Guide to QR Code Attacks to learn more about why QR code attacks are successful and how you can protect your organization from this novel threat.

Get the Guide
The Rise of QR Code Phishing Attacks: Exploring Quishing Threats

See Abnormal in Action

Get a Demo

Get the Latest Email Security Insights

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on the latest attacks and new trends in the email threat landscape.

 

See the Abnormal Solution to the Email Security Problem

Protect your organization from the full spectrum of email attacks with Abnormal.

 
Integrates Insights Reporting 09 08 22

Related Posts

B Complex Case of Account Compromise Blog
Discover how Abnormal helped one organization detect the sophisticated tactics an attacker used to compromise an employee's email account.
Read More
B Cross Platform Account Takeover
Discover the dangers of cross-platform account takeover, the challenges of detecting this attack, and how to implement proactive protection against ATO.
Read More
B 5 17 24 Legal
Learn how cybercriminals use superficial disclaimers to deceive others while facilitating illegal activity on cybercrime forums.
Read More
B Cybersecurity Influencers Blog 2024
Stay up to date on the latest cybersecurity trends, industry news, and best practices by following these 15 innovative and influential thought leaders on social media.
Read More
B 5 13 24 Docusign
Cybercriminals are abusing Docusign by selling customizable phishing templates on cybercrime forums, allowing attackers to steal credentials for phishing and business email compromise (BEC) scams.
Read More
B CRN
Abnormal employees honored as CRN 2024 Women of the Channel for their influential leadership in the tech industry.
Read More