The Past and Present of Random Links

Before the age of built in antivirus and user-friendly web design, it was entirely possible to wander onto a webpage that would just start downloading something malicious out of nowhere. Popups that did this were a serious problem, and many browsers responded by working in a sort of zero-trust philosophy. Firefox, for example, will tell you when a site has tried to open a pop-up, and asks you if you still want to open it. This does occasionally catch honest secondary windows (like payment portals and the like) but the great thing about that is that because it asked, you can say ‘yes, I wanted that to open’ and you’re not stuck with some horrid flashing popup dominating your screen every other time.

Aside from popups, some websites were able to either trick users into downloading things by mimicking a real website, or simply start downloading things themselves as soon as they were clicked. Separate antivirus programs were needed to combat phishing downloads alongside other website trash, as browsers can’t always differentiate between intentional and unintentional downloads. In this era of the internet, misclicking or accidentally misspelling a website URL could be catastrophic for the computer. Big hosting companies protect their hosted websites now by preventing others from registering domains that are almost the target URL, but not quite (a form of domain squatting) but this wasn’t always the case.

Furthermore, hyperlinks can be used to trick people into clicking things they’d otherwise have avoided. Remember Rick Rolling? Every trick that anyone has ever used to Rick Roll you can also be used to get you to click on, and download, something you don’t want on your computer. Disguised hyperlinks. Obfuscated URLs that re-route a couple of times to get you to lower your guard. Clickable buttons, in place of links. Social engineering. The list goes on!

The False Sense of Security

The modern web as most people browse it is a safer place than it used to be. Google’s SEO is partly to blame – users who report unpleasant website experiences or demonstrate that the website isn’t good by leaving within so many seconds of it loading will lead to that website appearing lower in the search results, until eventually Google stops letting it pop up near the top at all. Hosting services are also partly to blame – they have a monetary interest in keeping their websites whitelisted, and malicious websites screw that up for them. Plus, it’s sort of scummy. Would you want to do business with a company that passively allowed one of its clients to wreck another potential client’s car? Probably not!

Antivirus and default browser settings take care of much of the rest. But these things don’t mean the nastier parts of the web have stopped existing, they just mean it’s harder to get there without doing so intentionally. Users don’t fear clicking on links that lead to sources or Ko.Fi services because it’s been so long since that was a problem. Forum users click through links with no fear. While not a perfect breeding ground for scam links to come back (most people still know and remember the warning signs) it is a perfect breeding ground for something new built on old foundations – QR code scams.

QR Codes

A QR code is a sort of bar code that’s recorded in two dimensions (vertical and horizontal) instead of one. Almost every modern phone (and many of the outdated ones) come with a QR-reading feature built in. QR codes and code readers have a high tolerance for missing or damaged information, making it a fantastic resource for quick and easy link-loading – where a barcode is unreadable if a bar is missing, a QR code can often still be read if squares are missing or obscured. Advertisements, verification texts, digital menus, libraries, virtual queues, etc. all benefit from how simple it is to whip out a phone and point the camera at a black and white square for a few seconds. It’s even easier than typing in a link, and you can direct users to specific pages with gangly URLs without worrying how that URL is going to look on printed material – the user isn’t going to see the URL anymore, they’re going to see the QR code!

This lead to things like QR code stickers that would lead to individual GIFs or art project websites out in public, a form of easy-to-remove graffiti that still showed off some art in today’s hyper-online world. QR codes gave restaurants and their diners an easy way to see a digital menu without having to type in a URL. It also made Rick Rolling easy again.

You’re probably already seeing the issue here: when users can’t see the URL, they have no way of knowing where they’re going to end up when they scan it. A hyperlink’s true destination is visible to a user when they press and hold on mobile, or hover their mouse pointer over it on desktop – the same is not universally true for QR codes (some phones and programs show the link before asking you to continue, but many do not). The scam potential for these codes is off the charts because many do not understand them as ‘links’ but as ‘scannable objects’.

Discord Scam

For example, the recent slew of Discord scams! Essentially, what happens is a scammer compromises an account, either by password brute-forcing or by social engineering, and sends messages to everyone on that person’s friend list saying things like “ummm idk if this is really you or not but it was your name and it says you sent a girl gross stuff like wtf? Check the #shame tag and you’ll see it. I’m blocking you just in case, I can’t be friends with a predator”. They then send a link inviting you to join the Discord server mentioned in the message, and block you so you can’t continue to chat with them. As this is a compromised account and may be pretending to be someone you actually speak to on the regular, this can be very alarming. The first instinct is to join the server so you can defend yourself against whatever allegations have allegedly been made in that server! It presents you with a QR code to join the server that this compromised account has sent to you so you can clear your name and get your friend to unblock you, but when you scan it, it tricks your phone into giving over the login credentials for your Discord, compromising your account and continuing the scam.

This is the sort of scam that happened all the time before people grew wary of random DM’ed links! Here we are again, re-learning not to trust people that talk like bots and the things those bot-people/compromised accounts send us.