The Internet has taught us many things, but it has also trained people to expect something for nothing. Although there indeed is nothing wrong with getting a thing for free when it is of high quality, and there are no strings attached, most of us have come to realize that is very rarely the case.
One of the things that many people look for at no cost is a VPN. I’m sure you have seen offerings for a virtual private network that promise everything a pay service does for free. Call me skeptical, but how can that be the case?
Now before I go any further, I will say there are at least a couple free VPNs that I know are legitimate and open about how they pay for their infrastructure costs: CyberGhost and TunnelBear. There may be a few others too that I haven’t yet discovered. So you can assume anything I say for the remainder of this article does not apply to these.
That said, in general, using a free VPN is opening your device and your entire network up for a wide variety of problems. Providers may offer you the service at no cost, but in the background, many scary things may be happening. And before people realize what’s going on (if they ever do at all), it is often too late. The following are some of the issues involved with using a free virtual private network.
Potential Issues With a Free VPN
- Tracking – In most cases, a free VPN is going to keep tabs on all of your online activities, and they may do so for some pretty shady reasons. Some providers can run multiple tracking libraries. This may result in any data that passes through to be stolen, including your passwords, credit card numbers and anything else that you enter while connected (assuming an HTTPS connection is present). Even though these services claim that they are protecting your security and privacy, that is typically far from being the case.
- Malware – Another severe issue typically associated with a no-cost VPN is malware. In fact, the majority of those providers tend to contain it. And as I’m sure you know, after your device is infected, it can a challenge to clean. Once the malware is installed on your device, all your information is subject to scrutiny from outside sources. Those sources can target you with specific ads and emails. They can also go as far as hijacking your accounts, stealing your money, and locking you out of your device and demanding a ransom.
- Bandwidth – Depending on the service you end up using, it may be possible that your bandwidth is being stolen and used by others. Some companies even operate secondary companies that are used to sell the bandwidth they steal from their users. This business model is how services like Hola operate.
- Fraud – Perhaps one of the more severe problems associated with a virtual private network offered free of charge is the potential for fraudulent behavior. When you enter your credit card information while connected to the network (again, assuming no HTTPS), you might just find that all of a sudden there are thousands of dollars worth of charges on your card showing up out of nowhere. It is complicated tracking this type of activity, but it has been reported in more than one case.
- Hijacking – One other way that a free VPN may make their money back, even though they claim to offer their service for free, is by hijacking your browser. When you try to go to one website, you can end up automatically transferred to a different site which is a partner of the VPN. That isn’t even to mention the pop-ups and other sneaky redirects that may occur as you browse the Internet.
The bottom line is, it may seem beneficial to save by using a free VPN, but they are risky (minus the aforementioned CyberGhost, TunnelBear et al.). The best way to protect your online privacy is to get a good, high-quality paid service. Some cost as little per month as a single cup of coffee, and it will be money well spent.