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The pandemic made QR codes popular, and scammers quickly followed

An illustration showing a person using a cell phone to scan a QR code. The flier tells people to scan for $100, but the image on the cell phone screen shows that the site is dangerous.
Reka Szabo
St. Louis Public Radio
When QR codes rose in popularity during the pandemic, scammers quickly followed. The FBI says people should treat the links that pop up as they would any other website and think before they click.

The St. Louis office of the FBI is warning people to be vigilant when scanning a QR code to access a website or get a service.

The codes are scanned using a camera or an app on a smartphone, usually to direct users to a menu or a payment site. Though they have been around since 1994, QR codes grew in popularity during the pandemic as a way for people to reduce contact.

Scammers naturally followed, said Jill Mansfield, the special agent in charge of cybersecurity in St. Louis.

“Any time there’s new technology that’s released, that’s typically a good thing right?” she said. “That allows people a higher level of convenience. At the same time, it allows criminals to leverage that in ways that can be dangerous.”

The codes themselves aren’t malicious, Mansfield said. Just scanning one is unlikely to give criminals access to personal information or install malware on a device. People using the codes, she said, should treat them like a website.

“We’ve been telling the public for years to think before you click on a link, especially if it’s from an unknown sender, and the same thing applies to QR codes,” Mansfield said. “So if you’re in a business, and you obviously know the name of the business you’re at and the QR code takes you to a completely different site, you should think twice before moving forward.”

Mansfield said anyone who finds a scam QR code should file a report online with the FBI’s complaint center.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann 

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.