One of the most common questions we answer at AlpVision is this: can QR codes be counterfeited too? The short answer is that QR codes are counterfeit-able, but you have additional options to secure them. The challenge is determining which solutions will protect the code and which won’t have much of an impact.


Nevertheless, the opportunity exists for brands that want to limit the likelihood of fake QR images reaching the global market and getting into consumers’ hands. QR code technology in and of itself isn’t flawed; rather, the use cases don’t align with what companies need to protect their brands from counterfeiters who will do anything they can to ply their illegal trade.


QR code definition

QR stands for quick response, so the basic definition of a QR code is straightforward. It’s a square, two-dimensional image with varying black and white patterns that prompts users to scan the code with a smartphone camera. Thus, consumers now have the ability to retrieve product information quickly on any mobile device with a camera. The tech isn’t necessarily new, yet many still don’t understand why these types of images are helpful; some aren’t aware of what a QR code actually accomplishes, even though you don’t need to install a specific app to use them.


Essentially, the QR code’s graphic represents unique identification numbers (UID) similar to a traditional barcode but with more data. After scanning the graphic, the user will visit a website to read more information. In this sense, QR codes are simply outbound hyperlinks that eliminate the need to manually type a web address, an excellent convenience from an efficiency standpoint. With QR codes, you don’t have to clutter too much information within a limited amount of space, and the backend tech isn’t too complex as well.


Usually, QR codes work best within a sales and marketing context, yet many companies are also deploying them to thwart counterfeiting, unfortunately with mixed results. But why? Why aren’t QR graphics alone sufficient security against determined fraudsters who will try anything to pass off fake products as real items? We’ll discuss the answers below to provide more background before outlining the alternative.


What are the primary drawbacks of using QR codes for brand protection?

Since fraudsters can readily make copies of basic QR codes, they’re ineffective for product verification. Instead, brand owners can deploy QR codes for traceability and tracking; however, this strategy doesn’t account for verification requirements. You can track a product throughout the supply chain from end to end, but that doesn’t mean the item can’t be counterfeited somewhere along the way. Indeed, authenticating a product’s legitimacy makes traceability data more trustworthy as it’s reasonable to assume the item in question coincides with the correct tracking data.


Anyone with a reasonable amount of tech-savvy can buy illicit QR stickers from unwitting suppliers and apply them over legitimate QR codes. There’s no need to spoof the underlying data because they don’t have to go so far when a similar QR code sticker will suffice. Instead of directing users to a real website, they go to malicious websites for drive-by downloads or phishing attacks. Unfortunately, you can easily purchase simple QR code stickers and make them at scale for a minimal investment at online marketplaces like Alibaba.


When all else fails, counterfeiters can try to make exact duplicates, but thankfully, variable QR codes prevent such a simple con. If several end users read the same code but at different locations, the duplicate is discovered and becomes useless once you mitigate the problem. Still, rudimentary QR codes accomplish little when defending against counterfeiters. The good news is that the underlying concept for QR codes, serialized UIDs, remains valid.


UID concepts still underly QR codes

Unique identification numbers allow for tracking and traceability. Each item has a unique numerical sequence, which is exclusive to that particular product. No UID will be the same, so tracking and tracing are the most efficient. At first, UIDs had much potential regarding anti-counterfeiting measures. The landscape today is different, but the underlying concept of using UIDs still holds. The catch is that they need additional layers of protection, especially when it comes to secure packaging and shipping.


Without UID numbers, it would be significantly more challenging to manage a complex, global supply chain and keep logistical costs low – and digitally verify the authenticity of products. Some UIDs are 16-digit sequences while others are the 20-digit variety, each with their own use cases in different industries.


How to secure a QR code

That being said, how exactly do you secure QR codes if con artists can readily fake them? One anti-counterfeit protection has been to use serialized QR encoding. It’s a relatively standard digital method, yet the same downsides still apply. Criminals will have all of the data they need to make plain copies or read the regenerated code, and the unwitting consumer will never know the difference.


Some companies have chosen to combine QR codes with other overt, visible security features as an added measure, but there’s a serious flaw with this strategy: counterfeiters immediately know what to fake. At best, this method only deters amateur counterfeiters because any overt counterfeiting solution will eventually be faked with enough determination. Businesses must not underestimate the tenacity with which con artists work to recreate real products. That’s why the most efficient way to secure QR codes is to combine them with invisible covert features.


So, with those considerations in mind, we created a new solution to build a complete defense with updated anti-counterfeit technology: Cryptoglyph on top of standard QR codes and Secure QR Codes.


Cryptoglyph and Secure QR Codes – Packaging and Label Protection

AlpVision’s digital anti-counterfeit tech – Cryptoglyph – works well to secure packaging and labeling in addition to secure QR Codes. Originally invented in 2001, our Cryptoglyph solution was performed by punching small dots with ordinary ink over the package’s surface. These small holes were invisible to the naked eye and, thus, hidden to counterfeiters too. Additionally, there was no need to implement more technology than necessary since you can keep the production processes you already have in place.


Similar solutions during this period relied on a document scan for fraud detection, yet this method introduces unnecessary risks. It’s harder to verify markings on packaging materials like stick packs and plastic bags, so we developed secure QR code tech to complement the updates to Cryptoglyph.


One possibility is to print Cryptoglyphs in the varnish layer on top of the QR code. The one-of-a-kind Cryptoglyph ensures that goods are genuine while the QR code contains the tracking and traceability data. With AlpVision, you can verify both in one step, using a smartphone to scan the code.


An alternative is to use our Secure QR Codes, which contain microscopic holes in the dark sections of the code’s pattern. Indeed, Cryptoglyphs are undoubtedly effective enough to resist counterfeiters, yet you can develop more robust safeguards when you place them on top of Secure QR Codes.


That way, you will have an additional layer of protection that will only increase the efficiency of anti-counterfeit technology. You can’t do away with counterfeiting altogether, but you can make it much harder for criminals to trick unwitting consumers. The main question is: which strategy would work best for your organization?


If you’d like to read more about the benefits of Cryptoglyph and Secured QR Codes, download our latest white paper to learn which one to use.


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