As cybercrime continues to escalate, so the need for a VPN to hide information such as your social security number, credit card details, and website subscription login details, becomes increasingly important. Heading out into cyberspace without protection is no longer advisable, but that’s not to say that every VPN will provide you with the security you need.
Unfortunately, out of the 300 or so VPN providers out there, there’s only a handful actually delivering an effective and reliable service and many of the free VPNs on the market will not only fail to protect you but will actually harm you and your device. That’s not to say that every free VPN is out to get you, but they do have enough limitations that coughing up for a top-of-the-range version is well worth the few dollars it will set you back each month.
We recommend ExpressVPN as the most reliable and secure VPN.
What Free VPNs Really Cost You
As the old adage says, nothing in life is free, and the sad truth is that free VPNs often end up costing users more than their paid equivalents. Without further ado, let’s take a look at a few of the risks involved with a free VPN and what they mean for you as a user.
1. No Need for Speed
If you opt for a free version of a paid VPN, be prepared to be treated like a second-rate citizen. While some reputable VPNs, like ProtonVPN, have free packages available, the number of servers available is often limited. As a result, all free traffic is tunneled through a couple of servers that groan under the weight of it all, producing speeds that make tortoises look like cheetahs in comparison.
While some suggest that ProtonVPN throttles free users’ traffic on purpose, in an effort to get them to upgrade, most accept that it’s just a consequence of limited servers and, therefore, limited bandwidth. Either way, to find a free VPN that produces speeds fast enough for gaming or streaming is no mean feat.
The lack of high speeds and consistent connections available with ProtonVPN’s free service are both frustrating and render the VPN virtually unusable, but at least they don’t endanger you or your device, which some other free VPNs will.
2. Mixed up with Malware
One of the biggest problems with free VPNs is that they can contain bugs and malware which will quickly render your device inoperable. A couple of years ago, scientific researchers from Australia discovered that over a third of the VPN apps available on Google Play contained some malware, with the worst offenders being OKVPN and EasyVPN. While many of the culprits were removed from Google Play as a consequence, many have since returned.
The extent of the damage such malware can cause was revealed at the beginning of last year when VPNFilter malware managed to infect over half a million devices. The malware intercepts router traffic, performing a man-in-the-middle attack that enables it to monitor and steal information as it travels through the router. This malware is sophisticated enough to do all this without the user’s knowledge and will actively search for sensitive data like passwords, with the intention of sharing this information with third parties.
Although the best antivirus software can help protect you against malware attacks, it’s not enough to keep infected VPNs at bay. In fact, the only protection you can really rely on is that of a reputable VPN, but, if you already have one of those, chances are you won’t be downloading some dodgy free version and putting yourself at risk in the first place.
To gain further perspective, we ran a virus scan on NordVPN and felt rather smug when it proved 100% clean.
3. Selling out for Advertising
Understandably, making software costs money and if the user isn’t paying for it, then someone else must be. In the case of most free VPNs, it’s the advertisers that foot the bill and this means that users get precisely what they pay for – a slow service that is suffocating under a pile of pop-ups and adverts.
Not only will adverts slow down your connection speed and greedily consume your data but, if your device gets infected with adware, you’ll experience almost nothing but ads whenever you go online. Furthermore, some free VPNs even track your online activities, collect data related to your search interests, and sell that information to advertisers.
If that’s not scary enough, some VPN software actually does nothing but infect your device with adware. Last summer, the free VPN service, S5Mark, was exposed as a form of adware that would do nothing for your online security except diminish it. Once installed, a VPN user interface appears but, behind the screen, the program is actually sourcing information and sending that through to hackers.
4. Data Disclosed on Leaky Connections
Having a leaky VPN connection is worse than stepping in a puddle with a pair of holey boots. At least socks can dry out, whereas, once your sensitive data has been leaked, you’ve effectively been hung out to dry. A DNS leak can compromise everything from your browsing history to your personal login details and your IP address. No longer protected by your tunnel of anonymity, all your online activities can be tracked and your IP address potentially stolen and used by someone else as their internet exit node.
Back in 2015, free VPN Hola hit the headlines after it was rumored to have been selling users’ bandwidth to others who could then use their IP addresses for whatever online activity took their fancy. This meant, for example, that if a paying user purchased your “idle resources” to visit child pornography sites, any investigation into those activities would lead law enforcement agencies to your door via your IP address.
Surprisingly enough, Hola VPN is still doing the rounds but has since updated its FAQ section to reflect the real nature of its service, stating that Hola VPN “routes your traffic through other peers (nodes) in the Hola VPN network” and claiming that, by doing so, “Hola VPN is harder to detect and block”. Unfortunately, in this instance, transparency just isn’t enough, and the very structure of Hola’s service puts your device, your IP address, and your personal safety at risk. After all, if someone does commit a crime from your IP address, how are you going to prove it wasn’t you?
5. Your Third-Party Invitation
Most of us like receiving party invitations, but when the invitation is to a whole bunch of people you don’t know and is inviting them to feast on bowlfuls of your personal data, it suddenly isn’t very much fun at all. Unfortunately, some free VPNs boost their income by collecting information and then selling it to the highest bidder.
What this means for the average user is that your VPN has records of your original IP address, name, and email address, and all of these distinguishing markers can be linked to the logs it keeps regarding your online behavior. It may not sound like much but, as most people’s main reason for getting a VPN in the first place is so they can enjoy a private, unmonitored browsing experience, it does rather detract from its appeal.
According to a report from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, 75% of the VPN apps available on Google Play contain tracking of one description or another. The information they gather may be used for a variety of purposes but, most commonly, it’s sold to advertisers who hope to then make more money by targeting specific individuals with tailor-made adverts inspired by their browsing history.
Obviously, this type of data could also be released to law enforcement agencies, in the event of a criminal investigation, but, as most VPN users are law-abiding citizens, this isn’t as much of a worry as the selling of your personal information for financial compensation.
Averting Disaster with a Paid VPN
Peace of mind is a valuable commodity and with the competitive prices on offer by the best VPNs, it’s worth paying those few dollars a month for. A reliable paid VPN service, like ExpressVPN for example, will protect your identity at all times, even if you choose to wander into the darkest corners of the deep web. Not only that, it will allow you unlimited access to whatever content you want, unblocking geographically restricted sites as though they were easier to overcome than child-proof tablet bottles.
Not only has ExpressVPN’s no-logging policy been proven in a court of law, but it’s also situated in the privacy-friendly British Virgin Islands, meaning that it isn’t under any obligation to retain data or share it with members of the five or 14-eyes intelligence alliances.
Taking security to another level, ExpressVPN has a range of free tools available online which can be used to identify DNS leaks in any VPN service. ExpressVPN was also intrinsic in the compilation of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Signals of Trustworthy VPNs initiative, which encourages VPN providers to come clean about their service and how they actually make money.
Having a VPN that is designed purely to provide online anonymity and security, and not to make money by selling your private data, is the only way to go in the current era of cyber threats and exponential growth of online crimes. Unfortunately, the only way to guarantee this is to opt for a paid VPN service that actually makes it money in the most obvious way – by charging you for a service you require.
A paid VPN service, like that offered by ExpressVPN, will protect you against malware rather than infecting you with it; block adverts rather than sell your data to advertisers; provide a secure connection rather than risking your security with a leaky one, and give you unlimited bandwidth and high-speed connections all over the world.
As one of the leading lights in cybersecurity, ExpressVPN is extremely cost-effective and, if you’re willing to commit to a one-year subscription, ExpressVPN will give you three months for free and 30 days in which to try out the service, with the guarantee that you’ll get the money back at the end if you decide not to continue the subscription.
Not only is ExpressVPN affordable, but it’s also easy to operate and extremely powerful – if you don’t believe us, check out our full review of its best features here. With an extensive network of servers and some of the top speeds in the industry, ExpressVPN is one of the few surefire ways to truly protect yourself online and enjoy a completely safe and anonymous browsing experience.