Quishing: Next-Gen Phishing Attack

The essence of quishing technology is the QR code’s ability to store and seamlessly deliver information to a user’s device. While QR codes themselves are neutral and have many positive uses, their simplicity and ubiquity make them an attractive tool for cybercriminals to exploit. As with any technology, the way it’s used (for good or ill) depends on the intentions of the user or creator.

Ensar Seker
10 min readSep 19, 2023
Credit: DreamStudio

What is Quishing?

Quishing, a portmanteau of “Quick Response (QR)” and “phishing,” refers to a type of cyber attack where malicious actors deceive individuals into scanning QR codes that lead to harmful websites or actions. These QR codes can be found in public places, in emails, or even on legitimate-looking websites. The emergence of quishing can be attributed to the growing popularity and convenience of QR codes in daily life, from restaurant menus to payment methods. As QR codes became a ubiquitous tool for quick information access, cybercriminals saw an opportunity to exploit this trend. By embedding malicious links within these codes, they could easily bypass traditional phishing detection methods and directly lead unsuspecting users to malicious sites. This evolution in cyber threats underscores the importance of being cautious and verifying the source before scanning any QR code.

How does Quishing Differ from Traditional Phishing?

Quishing and traditional phishing are both deceptive techniques used by cybercriminals to trick individuals into divulging sensitive information or performing specific actions that compromise their security. However, there are distinct differences between the two:

➡️ Method of Delivery:

🪝Quishing: Involves the use of QR (Quick Response) codes. Victims are lured into scanning a malicious QR code with their mobile devices, which then redirects them to harmful websites or prompts certain actions.

🎣Traditional Phishing: Typically involves deceptive emails, messages, or websites. Victims might receive an email that appears to be from a trusted source, urging them to click on a link or download an attachment. User

➡️ Interaction:

🪝Quishing: Requires the user to physically scan a QR code using their device’s camera. This can happen in public places, on physical mailers, or even on digital screens.

🎣Traditional Phishing: Requires the user to click on a hyperlink, download a file, or input information into a deceptive website.

➡️ Detection:

🪝Quishing: Can be harder to detect at first glance since QR codes don’t display the destination URL or action. Users might not know where the QR code will lead them until after they’ve scanned it.

🎣Traditional Phishing: Users can often hover over links to see the destination URL or check the sender’s email address, making some phishing attempts easier to spot.

➡️ Popularity and Prevalence:

🪝Quishing: Is a newer form of attack, capitalizing on the increasing use of QR codes for convenience in various sectors, from dining to banking.

🎣Traditional Phishing: Has been around for a longer time and is more widespread. It has various sub-types, including spear phishing, smishing (SMS phishing), and vishing (voice phishing).

➡️ Target Platform:

🪝Quishing: Primarily targets mobile device users since most QR code scans are done through smartphones or tablets.

🎣Traditional Phishing: Can target both desktop and mobile users, depending on the medium of the phishing attempt. In essence, while both quishing and traditional phishing aim to deceive and exploit users, they differ in their delivery methods, user interactions, and the platforms they target.

Credit: DreamStudio

What is the Technology behind Quishing?

The technology behind quishing primarily revolves around the use of QR codes. Here’s a breakdown of the technology and how it’s exploited in quishing attacks:

👾 QR Code Generation: QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes that can store a variety of information, such as URLs, text, or contact details. There are many legitimate online tools and software applications available that allow for the creation of QR codes.

👾 Embedding Malicious Links: In the context of quishing, cybercriminals generate QR codes that contain malicious URLs or commands. When scanned, these QR codes can redirect users to phishing websites, malware downloads, or other harmful actions.

👾 Distribution: Once the malicious QR code is generated, attackers need to distribute or display it where potential victims might scan it. This could be in public places (like posters or flyers), in emails, on legitimate-looking websites, or even on products.

👾 Redirection Technology: After scanning, the embedded information in the QR code, usually a URL in the case of quishing, is accessed by the scanning device. This redirection can lead to phishing sites that mimic legitimate websites, urging users to input sensitive information.

👾 Data Collection and Exploitation: If the quishing attack leads to a phishing site, the technology behind the site can be similar to traditional phishing sites. This includes web forms to collect user data, scripts to capture and transmit this data to the attacker, and sometimes even real-time interaction capabilities.

👾 Obfuscation Techniques: To make detection harder, attackers might use URL shorteners or other obfuscation techniques to hide the malicious nature of the link embedded in the QR code.

👾 Integration with Other Technologies: In more advanced quishing attacks, the malicious QR code might trigger the download of malware or exploit vulnerabilities in the scanning application or device’s operating system.

What are the Common Methods and Techniques used by Attackers?

Quishing, the malicious use of QR codes to deceive users, has seen cybercriminals employ a variety of methods and techniques to achieve their nefarious goals. Commonly, attackers strategically place these tampered QR codes in locations where they are likely to be scanned, such as on public advertisements, flyers, or even on products. In some instances, they replace legitimate QR codes with malicious ones, capitalizing on the trust users place in familiar settings. Additionally, to mask their intent, cybercriminals often use URL shorteners, making the embedded links appear benign at first glance. Once scanned, these codes can redirect users to phishing websites that mimic legitimate platforms, urging them to input personal or financial information. In more sophisticated attacks, the QR codes might initiate the download of malware or ransomware onto the user’s device. The inherent trust that many place in QR codes, combined with the difficulty of discerning a code’s legitimacy merely by looking at it, makes quishing an effective and insidious tactic in the cybercriminal arsenal.

Credit: DreamStudio

What are the Real-world Examples of Quishing Attacks?

Real-world examples of Quishing attacks include a notable incident that took place between June 13 and June 22, 2023. Five senior employees of the tech company received malicious emails that impersonated the company’s IT department. These emails contained a QR code that, when scanned, redirected users to a login page specifically designed to harvest their credentials.

The emails were crafted with a sense of urgency, often using words like “urgent,” “now,” “required,” or “important” in the subject line. Some even tried to impersonate the company’s internal IT team to appear more legitimate. A distinguishing feature of these emails was their minimal plain text content. Instead, they primarily contained an image attachment, which likely displayed most of the message. This image was professionally formatted, even incorporating the logo of a well-known corporation, Microsoft, to enhance its authenticity. The central element of the image was the QR code, which contained a malicious link.

Interestingly, some of the Quishing emails linked to legitimate file storage and sharing platforms, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS). However, these links would then redirect to malicious domains. Given the nature of the landing pages these links led to, it’s evident that the primary objective of this phishing campaign was to steal the recipients’ credentials. This assumption is further supported by the fact that the targeted recipients were senior employees, making their credentials high-value targets for potential attackers.

This incident underscores the evolving tactics employed by cybercriminals and the importance of staying vigilant against such sophisticated threats.

Credit: Spiceworks

What is the Challenge of Detecting and Preventing Quishing?

Detecting and preventing quishing presents unique challenges, primarily due to the nature of QR codes and the evolving tactics of cybercriminals. Here are some of the primary challenges associated with quishing:

📍Inherent Trust in QR Codes: QR codes have become a ubiquitous tool for convenience in various sectors, from accessing restaurant menus to making payments. This widespread acceptance has led many users to inherently trust QR codes without questioning their source or intent.

📍Lack of Visibility: Unlike traditional URLs, which can be hovered over or inspected to determine their legitimacy, QR codes don’t provide immediate visibility into their content. Users can’t easily discern a malicious QR code from a legitimate one just by looking at it.

📍Diverse Distribution Channels: Quishing attacks can be launched through various mediums. Malicious QR codes can be printed on physical flyers, embedded in emails, displayed on digital screens, or even placed over legitimate QR codes, making detection even harder.

📍Use of URL Shorteners and Obfuscation: Cybercriminals often use URL shorteners or other obfuscation techniques to hide the malicious nature of the link embedded in the QR code. This makes it challenging to determine the final destination of the link until it’s too late.

📍Rapid Evolution of Tactics: As with other cyber threats, quishing tactics evolve rapidly. Attackers continuously devise new methods to deceive users, such as creating more convincing phishing landing pages or integrating QR codes with other attack vectors.

📍Limited Security Measures on Mobile Devices: Quishing primarily targets mobile device users. While desktop browsers often have various security plugins and tools to detect phishing sites, mobile browsers might not have the same level of protection, making users more vulnerable.

📍Lack of Awareness: Many users are unaware of the concept of quishing, making them more susceptible to such attacks. Without proper education and awareness campaigns, users might continue to scan QR codes without considering the potential risks.

📍Delayed Response: Even if a user realizes they’ve scanned a malicious QR code, the action might have already been taken, such as redirecting to a phishing site or downloading malware. The immediacy of QR code actions allows little room for second-guessing.

To effectively combat quishing, a multi-faceted approach is required. This includes user education, advanced scanning tools that can verify the legitimacy of QR codes, and continuous monitoring of emerging threats in the cybersecurity landscape.

Credit: DreamStudio

What are the Tools and Technologies to Detect and Prevent Quishing?

Detecting and preventing quishing requires a combination of tools, technologies, and best practices. Here are some of the prominent tools and technologies that can help mitigate the risks associated with quishing:

🛡️QR Code Scanning Apps with Security Features: Some QR code scanning apps come with built-in security features that can check the legitimacy of the destination URL before opening it. They might warn users if the link appears malicious or is associated with known phishing sites.

🛡️Web Filters and Security Software: Web filters, often integrated into security software or as standalone applications, can block access to known malicious websites. If a QR code redirects to a known phishing site, the web filter can prevent the site from loading.

🛡️Mobile Security Solutions: Comprehensive mobile security solutions can detect and block malicious activities on mobile devices, including those initiated by scanning malicious QR codes. They can identify and stop malware downloads, phishing attempts, and other threats.

🛡️URL Reputation Services: These services maintain databases of URLs known to be associated with malicious activities. Scanning apps or security solutions can integrate with these services to check the reputation of a URL before allowing access.

🛡️Two-Factor Authentication (2FA): While not a direct tool against quishing, enabling 2FA on sensitive accounts ensures that even if credentials are compromised, an additional layer of security prevents unauthorized access.

🛡️Machine Learning and AI-Based Solutions: Advanced security solutions leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence to detect unusual patterns or behaviors. These can be particularly effective in identifying new or evolving quishing tactics.

🛡️Regular Software Updates: Keeping all software, especially QR code scanning apps and mobile operating systems, updated ensures that the latest security patches and threat definitions are in place.

🛡️Education and Training Platforms: Tools that offer cybersecurity training and simulations can help educate users about the risks of quishing and how to recognize potential threats. Regular training can heighten awareness and reduce the chances of falling for such attacks.

🛡️Secure QR Code Generators: Organizations can use secure and reputable QR code generation tools that offer features like encryption, expiration dates, and usage tracking. This ensures that the QR codes they generate for legitimate purposes are secure and tamper-proof.

🛡️Incident Response Tools: In the event of a suspected quishing attack, having tools that can quickly analyze, respond to, and mitigate threats can be invaluable. These tools can help organizations understand the scope of an attack and take appropriate measures.

🛡️Threat Intelligence Platforms: These platforms provide real-time information about emerging threats, including new quishing tactics. Integrating this intelligence into security solutions can enhance their effectiveness.

While tools and technologies play a crucial role in detecting and preventing quishing, it’s equally important for individuals and organizations to adopt a proactive approach to security. Regular training, staying updated on the latest threats, and practicing caution when scanning QR codes are essential components of a comprehensive defense strategy against quishing.