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Diving deep into the dangerous world of free VPNs

In the US, more people started using VPNs for work or personal reasons in 2022. As per NordVPN, the usage went up from 24% to 33% of Americans. Almost half of these users opt for free VPNs.

This trend toward free VPNs comes because most VPN services are quite expensive. The average monthly cost for VPNs on longer plans is around $3 - $4. But to get this rate, you usually have to pay for 2 - 3 years upfront, which means spending $80 - 120 at once. If you pay month by month, it is much pricier, often over $10. For example, ExpressVPN charges $12.95 for just one month.

Many people turn to free VPNs because of these high costs. While VPNs are great for getting around online restrictions and keeping your activity private, there is a catch with free ones. Users do not realize or ignore the potential dangers of using free VPNs. They expect better privacy and security, as the ads suggest, but they might actually be putting themselves at risk.

Is it possible for a VPN service to be truly free?

Well, the quick answer is no. Even if a VPN seems free for the user, it is not really free to run. Andrew Gitt from VPNBrains says: "Any service needs servers, bandwidth, software, and security. These things cost money. So, when a VPN is offered for free, it usually means the company is cutting costs somewhere or finding other ways to make money."

When considering free VPNs, it is important to think about where they are saving money and how they are covering their expenses.

How do free VPNs cut corners?

Basic features

While free VPNs offer some features, they usually lack many advanced ones. For instance, many do not have the split tunneling option, which allows some of your online activities to bypass the VPN. Additionally, streaming fans may find it hard to bypass geo-restrictions.

Compromised security

Many free VPNs utilize outdated encryption like PPTP, making users susceptible to cyberattacks and data breaches.

Data restrictions

Many free VPNs cap the amount of data you can use each month. This might be fine for casual browsing but not for downloading movies, streaming, or online gaming. Plus, if they restrict your data, it suggests they are logging your usage to some extent.

Data restrictions

Many free VPNs cap the amount of data you can use each month. This might be fine for casual browsing but not for downloading movies, streaming, or online gaming. Plus, if they restrict your data, it suggests they are logging your usage to some extent.

Slower connection

Speed often takes a hit with free VPNs. They typically have fewer servers for their users compared to paid services. This means more users are crammed into fewer servers, slowing the connection.

Fewer server options

A limited number of servers can make it challenging to connect reliably or access content from various regions.

Poor support

If you run into problems, do not expect top-tier customer service from a free VPN. Their technical support and bug resolution might be slow or even non-existent.

Potential breaches

Skimping on security and infrastructure can lead to vulnerabilities. For example, in 2021, data from 21 million users from several VPN services became public. This exposed user details, including their email and even payment information. This information allows cybercriminals to target other platforms where users have used identical credentials.

How do free VPNs generate revenue?

Even if users are not directly paying the VPN provider, the service has to find a way to monetize its offering. The old saying goes: "If you are not paying for the product, you are the product."

The reasons behind offering a free VPN can vary, from genuinely altruistic to outright deceptive. Recognizing these motives is crucial because free VPN services can employ multiple revenue streams:

  • A common practice among free VPNs is collecting and selling user data to third parties, ranging from advertisers to malicious entities.
  • Free VPNs can earn revenue through ads. Some are notorious for bombarding users with intrusive pop-ups or forcibly redirecting them to different web pages.
  • Some free VPNs come bundled with malware designed to steal data, siphon off funds, or covertly employ the user's device, turning it into part of a botnet..

Recognizing and avoiding malicious providers

The most malicious actions typically come from lesser-known services not mentioned in reputable articles or reviews. These services often reach potential users through unsolicited links in messaging apps, recommendations on social platforms, or ads on questionable sites, mirroring common virus distribution tactics.

As a precaution, one should never engage with VPN service links received through messengers, social media, or unfamiliar websites. Instead, always research the VPN's name, read reviews, and ensure you visit the service's official website directly.

When some VPNs are not really VPNs

Sometimes, what is marketed as a free VPN is not a VPN at all. Take the Opera browser's feature, advertised as a free VPN for "better online privacy." In reality, it is not a VPN, and it does not offer the privacy it claims. Experts have pointed out that it is just a web proxy, giving users a false sense of security. Plus, Opera's privacy terms mention collecting and sharing user data with others.

Free plans from well-known VPN companies

Many established VPN companies offer free versions as a way to draw in users. Typically, these free versions might have slower speeds or data limits compared to their paid plans. However, even though they are from reputable companies, it is essential to remember they might track some user data. While they probably will not sell your personal information, there is no guarantee they will not share anonymous data with advertisers. Always do a quick online search about any VPN company to see what others say about their free plans.

Great option: VPNs run by nonprofits

These are usually backed by groups passionate about Internet freedom. They might be charities set up to champion online rights or political initiatives helping people get around censorship and protect their online presence. Often funded by donations or grants, these VPNs mean well.

Remember, though: just because it is nonprofit does not mean it is bulletproof. Trust them as much as you know about who runs them and their reputation. Plus, while they can get around blocks, they are not magic shields. If you are after top-notch anonymity, something like the Tor browser might be more up your alley.

Selecting the right VPN

Always trust community feedback. Look for recommendations from organizations that stand for digital freedom and oppose censorship. When evaluating a VPN, it is not just about what articles say. Articles can be biased or misleading. The true measure is the community's voice. Unlike websites where comments might be heavily moderated, there are platforms and forums where genuine user feedback remains unfiltered.

A sobering conclusion

The reality is that free VPNs often come with heightened risks concerning user privacy and potential malicious activities. This raises significant concerns about their usage. Yet, when looking at user preferences, it seems VPN users weigh different factors. Surfing through numerous free VPN apps on Google Play, I noticed that fewer than 1% of users raise concerns about privacy and security. In contrast, one in three users mentions bugs and excessive battery usage. Regrettably, privacy and security are not the top considerations for the majority.


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