Free VPNs – Safe or Dangerous?

by Staff & Contributors

Free VPNs are extremely enticing, but just how safe are they?

We’ll take a look at the risks of using free VPNs and also offer a verdict on whether all free VPNs are dangerous. If you’re looking for VPNs with security at their heart and are in a hurry though, feel free to follow that link.

Here’s What Can Go Wrong If You Use a Free VPN

Overall, you expose yourself to six huge risks:

1. You Might Get Infected with Malware

Hackers often use promises of free goods to infect people’s devices. So it’s not really surprising that free VPNs might expose you to viruses too.

Now we’re not saying all free VPNs are run by cybercriminals. That’s a pretty outlandish claim. However, according to research, some VPN providers knowingly or unknowingly expose their users to potential malware infections. Based on the data from that study, it seems that out of 283 free VPNs:

  • 43% of them used adware (meaning you could interact with malicious ads).
  • 29% of them exposed their users to Trojan viruses.
  • 17% dabbled in malvertising.
  • 6% of them exposed user to riskware.
  • And, finally, 5% of them exposed people to spyware.

So using a free VPN can be pretty dangerous if you’re unlucky.

2. You’ll Likely Get Spammed with Ads

Since the provider isn’t charging you for their service, they have to make money somehow. Otherwise, how are they supposed to keep offering it?

That’s where ads come into play. Many free VPNs display ads in the UI to make money. Unfortunately, some of them take it too far with display behavior that borders on spam.

For some of you, that might not be such a huge problem. But consider this – what if some of those ads are malicious? What if some of them redirect you to phishing sites?

It’s really not worth taking that risk in our opinion.

3. You Won’t Get Any Privacy

Remember the study we linked at #1?

Well, it also said that roughly 82% of the free VPNs the researchers checked out had request permissions for accessing personal data (like your text messages).

Also, around 75% of those VPNs used third-party tracking libraries.

Add to that the fact that popular free VPNs have been previously accused of selling user data to advertisers and sharing it with other third parties, and it’s pretty obvious they don’t have your privacy in mind. Not to mention many of them also keep usage logs (basically, what you do online with the VPN).

Which kind of defeats the purpose of using a VPN in the first place, wouldn’t you agree? In that situation, you’re just trading ISP spying and government surveillance for invasive VPN tracking.

4. You Won’t Get Helpful Support

Paid VPNs normally offer 24/7 customer support. Many of them even offer live chat on their websites so you can quickly solve your problem.

With free VPNs, you don’t normally get those perks.

Why not?

We’ll answer that with another question – how would they be able to afford them if the service is free? Quality, round-the-clock customer support costs a lot of money.

Usually, you need to settle for delayed responses (think 72+ hours or even more than a week) and extremely unhelpful advice.

5. You’ll Be Exposed to Security Risks

We’ll have to mention the study we linked at #1 again.

According to the researchers, around 18% of the free VPNs they checked out didn’t encrypt your connection to their servers.

What’s more, anywhere between 66% and 84% of the apps that did offer encrypted connections didn’t route DNS or IPv6 traffic through them.

Not sure what that means?

It’s pretty simple – in those scenarios, your web browsing is no longer hidden. If the VPN doesn’t use encryption, your ISP, hackers, the government, advertisers, and even the VPN provider can see what you’re doing online.

Also, if the provider doesn’t tunnel DNS and IPv6 traffic, you’ll likely experience IPv6 and DNS leaks. That’s when your connection requests leak out of the VPN tunnel. Which again means anyone can see the sites you’re browsing.

6. Your Bandwidth Might Get Hijacked

If you’re extremely unlucky, the free VPN you use could make you part of a botnet. That’s what Hola did by aggregating user bandwidth and selling it to third parties.

That was mostly possible due to how Hola works (it’s a peer-to-peer VPN). It’s pretty similar to how some Tor users act as exit nodes for other users.

But unlike Tor, you couldn’t opt out of being an exit node if you used Hola. In that situation, if someone were to do something illegal by using you as an exit node, you could be held accountable.

Are All Free VPNs Dangerous?

No, there are some free VPNs that are actually legit. Though they’re not “free” in the traditional sense. Instead, they offer free plans with limited features and/or bandwidth restrictions.

Windscribe, for example, lets you use the service for free for as long as you want. You’ll just need a confirmed email address to get 10GB of data per month. Also, you’re limited to 10 locations. They can offer that deal because they have other paid plans to sustain their business model.

ProtonVPN is another good example. They can offer a free plan (with limited features) because they have paid subscriptions and an additional service (ProtonMail) to sustain themselves.

Basically, as long as the VPN has a way to keep the business going, it can offer legit free VPN plans.

How Do You Know a VPN Is Really Safe to Use?

There’s a long checklist to go through. The service needs to offer powerful encryption, leak protection, must keep zero logs and be able to prove they do that, and have a legitimate business model (just to name a few things).

Really, the easiest way to find a safe VPN is to check this list of VPNs with security at their heart from ProPrivacy.

What Do You Think about Free VPNs?

Do you feel safe using one, or do you think you’re just trading one type of surveillance for another?

Please tell us how you feel about them in the comments or on social media.

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