How to avoid a VPN scam and find a safe-to-use product: Internet Scambusters #869
Worries about the security of our mobile devices could inadvertently lure us into a VPN scam.
VPNs -- virtual private networks -- are an effective way of protecting devices from hackers and hiding our online activities but only if you use one that doesn't sell your data or upload malware onto them.
In this week's issue, we'll identify the warning signs of a VPN scam and explain how to go about finding a trustworthy one.
Let's get started...
5 Red Flags That Signal a VPN Scam
Is it free? Will it last a lifetime? Or is it just another VPN scam?
We wrote about VPNs -- virtual private networks -- last year. Since then, there's been a huge growth in their usage because of security risks associated with increased use of mobile devices.
In very simple terms (see our previous issue for more detail -- Do You Need a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for Your Internet Safety?), a VPN is an Internet service that creates a secure connection between your computer and other networks.
It stops hackers from accessing your PC when you're using a public Wi-Fi network and it provides a degree of anonymity, making it difficult for anyone to track your activity or identify your data.
This is particularly important when we use our mobile devices away from the security of our home network.
As a result, hundreds, probably thousands, of VPN services have popped up, seeking to lure users to sign up.
Why should this be? Well, the legitimate ones are mainly businesses out to make a profit -- by charging you more than it costs them to maintain their services. That's fair enough. That's business.
But others are less scrupulous. After all, they know who you are and what you're looking at -- valuable data they can sell to eager third parties.
They can also load malware onto your PC to steal information they can sell.
And, in some cases, they've been known to sell customers' bandwidth -- that's the amount of data your Internet service provider (ISP) will handle for you per second.
So, if your ISP sells you a high-speed service of, say, 60 megabits per second (Mbps), the VPN scammer might restrict you to 30 Mbps, and sell the remaining capacity to someone operating a botnet -- a network of hijacked PCs used to send out spam.
The challenge you face is knowing which ones you can trust and which are just VPN scams.
Here are some of the red flags you should look out for when you're VPN shopping:
- You're offered a lifetime subscription for a knock-down price. The operator can't afford to do this unless they're either selling your data, planning to cancel the deal after a short time, or simply harvesting subscriptions before they close down.
- It's free! Think about it. How can a VPN service operate servers all over the world and charge you nothing for using them? Again, they might be selling your data, bombarding you with ads or even redirecting you to pages from which they earn a fee.
- They're relatively new and make unreasonable claims -- such as being the fastest or most reliable -- and guarantees about the security of your data. Unless the new service comes from a well-known name in the software business, consider it as suspect.
- Rave reviews. This is bad news. Most of us rely on what others say when we're researching a product. But not in this case. There's evidence that some VPN scammers operate their own review sites in which their product, of course, comes out on top. You can still do your research by adding words like "scam" to the name of the VPN you're considering but steer clear of review sites unless they belong to well-known names such as computer magazine publishers (see below).
- The seller is an agent for a VPN company but doesn't operate the service himself. If you use one, you're adding just one more potential source of data leaks and security breaches to your risks. Buy direct!
How to Find A Trustworthy and Secure VPN
The red flags we've raised don't necessarily mean that a deal is a VPN scam. But you should certainly give them serious weight when you're deciding which service to buy.
Fortunately, there are some reputable research sites where VPNs are put to the test as regards to their privacy, reliability, and honesty.
One such site is RestorePrivacy.com whose declared mission is "to give you all the information and tools you need to restore your online privacy, secure your electronic devices, and stay safe online."
The site doesn't carry ads, but it says upfront that it does earn a commission if you buy one of the products in its list. All services are thoroughly tested and then ranked according to key factors like where they are based, whether there's any data "leakage," speed, reliability, trustworthiness, and track record.
Importantly, the site also has a VPN warning list, naming VPNs that allegedly have shown signs of infringement of the ideals listed -- mainly containing malware or tracking users' behavior.
We can't vouch for the accuracy of this site, of course, but our own research and the site's declared mission suggest that it's trustworthy. Other reputable sites include TheBestVPN.com and VPNmentor.com.
At present, only a quarter of all Internet users are using VPNs. If you're not one of them but are a regular user of mobile devices, it's probably time you gave the subject serious consideration.
And if you do use one that's covered in our red flags list, maybe you should be checking your provider out and thinking about switching. After all, if you're a VPN scam victim, you could end up worse off than if you weren't using a service at all.
Alert of the Week
If you've booked a vacation via online travel site Expedia and need to make a change to your booking, don't rely on links that are highly placed in searches.
Phony Expedia sites have been appearing regularly in searches and when you call them, you end up paying via gift cards for your booking to be changed -- which of course it isn't.
To make changes, go to Expedia.com, sign in and use the "my trips" or "support" link.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!