How to Avoid the Fake Restaurant QR Codes You’ve Been Hearing About

Learn what to watch for when scanning menu QR codes at restaurants.

We’ve all seen one—a slightly-off email that shows up asking us to click a link to an account we already have (like the phone company, Amazon or Walmart). From there, we’re usually led to a fake website, asking for sensitive personal information that scammers use to steal people’s identities.

When it comes to iffy emails, it’s best to delete them immediately. But what about the even subtler ways that scammers try to steal your personal info? Cybercriminals are now using QR (or Quick Response) codes to scam people at all kinds of places, including restaurants. You can still protect your information. Here’s how.

What’s a QR Code, Anyway?

If you’re not familiar with how QR codes work, don’t worry. It’s some pretty complicated tech stuff that we’re not going to get into, but all you need to know is that the funky little black and white squares act as scannable barcodes. They’ve been around since 1994, but really picked up with the use of smartphones, which can scan the patterns for website links, phone numbers, coupons and other types of data.

How the QR Code Scam Works

During the pandemic, many restaurants and hotel buffets switched to QR code menus. They’re easy to use with a smartphone, contactless and reduce the need for paper menus. All a customer needs to do is scan the barcode through their phone’s camera app, and voila, a link to the online menu will appear in a notification.

Easy, right? Right, but not if a scammer has replaced the legitimate QR code with a fake one.

Scammers are now replacing things like restaurant QR codes with malicious ones. Instead of taking the customer to the restaurant website, one of these fake QR codes will take them to a fake (but realistic) one, asking users to set up an account or divulge personal info. In fact, the FBI actually sent out a public warning in January to raise awareness about fraudulent QR codes.

QR codes aside, here are some other ways restaurants have adapted to the pandemic.

What You Need to Do

Don’t cancel your dinner reservations! Here are a few things you can do to prevent scammers from accessing your information through fake QR codes.

  • Take a close look at the QR code. Check for any signs that it has been tampered with, whether that’s a sticker layered on top of another or some wear and tear, like something was ripped off and replaced.
  • If the code looks clean and you scan it, check with restaurant staff to make sure the website you arrive at is legit. If the website asks for financial info or prompts you to set up an account, ask your server or host why that’s a necessary procedure, and see if there’s another way to order.
  • Check out the URL, too, advises WCVB. Malicious websites can look eerily similar to legit ones, but the scam URL may include typos.

Follow these steps and you should be in the clear and on your way to enjoying a tasty dinner. When in doubt, simply ask for a paper menu. Many restaurants have started using them again.

Hannah Twietmeyer
Hannah is a writer and content creator based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a passion for all things food, health, community and lifestyle. She is a journalism graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a previous dining and drink contributor for Madison Magazine.