More and more people are becoming concerned about their online privacy and security. As such, many of them are turning to virtual private network solutions that promise to keep them anonymous on the web, access pages that are not normally available, as well as unlock exclusive streaming services like Netflix.
What comes next is a choice between free and premium VPN services. It certainly sounds tempting to use a free VPN tool, especially since a premium service implies not a one-time but a recurring payment.
However, many people are not aware of the hidden dangers that come with freebies, especially when it comes to virtual private network solutions. Nothing is really free, after all, especially on the Internet.
In this article, we are exploring free VPNs to show you the risks you are taking when not opting for a premium virtual private network service. We also took the liberty of recommending a premium VPN service at the end of this article.
Check out the list of topics below to see what you can expect here (click to jump):
What are the hidden dangers of free VPN?
- 1. Infects your device with malware
- 2. Pushes ads aggressively
- 3. Collects and sells your data to third parties
- 4. Provides poor Internet connection speed
- 5. Limits your network bandwidth for VPN traffic
- 6. Cannot unblock Netflix and other streaming services
- 7. Makes few VPN servers available
- 8. Does not provide customer support
- 9. Lacks advanced security features
- 10. Many free VPN services are owned by the same company>
- How to protect yourself from the hidden dangers of free VPN
- In conclusion
What are the hidden dangers of free VPN?
If you think that a free virtual private network service does it job just like a premium VPN tool, think again. You will certainly end up disappointed, particularly when your online security and privacy are at stake. Here are some of the most common hidden dangers of using a free VPN.
1. Infects your device with malware
A virtual private network tool should be security-oriented – that is the working theory, at least. Thus, you must trust that your VPN shields you from hackers, whether you are securely browsing the web at home or at a public Wi-Fi hotspot.
Unfortunately, an independent study conducted on 283 Android VPN apps, out of which 130 were free services, demonstrated that 38% VPNs were infected with malware. Most of the infections were triggered by free apps, though.
A good example to back up this case is Onavo Protect, acquired by Facebook back in 2013. Claiming to be a VPN service, it secretly collected and analyzed VPN traffic to generate statistics about how all apps were being used on mobile devices.
Ultimately, it was considered spyware. And, as a result, Onavo Protect was removed from the App Store in 2018 and from the Play Store in 2019. It was demonstrated that the app was violating Apple and Google privacy policies.
Sadly, the ratings of a VPN service in Google Play Store or iOS App Store rarely reflect the reality. Their users are usually fake: company employees or contractors using ghost accounts. Otherwise, those people are taking the free VPN for granted, not being aware of what is actually going on.
On the other hand, a premium VPN provider would never risk tainting its reputation with malware infections. It has a team of security experts behind it that swiftly identify and block any malware agents to keep them from spreading on the computers of their customers.
2. Pushes ads aggressively
Another hidden danger is that almost all free VPNs are ad-supported. It means that they display ads or offer third-party programs during installation, in an effort to generate revenue somehow. It makes sense since there are few noble VPN providers out there willing to deliver top-notch services at no cost.
It is not only that ads and banners are annoying. But you might accidentally click them on your computer or tap them on your smartphone when trying to switch servers or configure VPN settings.
Thanks to your mishap, you might unwillingly open pages with aggressive ads that are difficult to eliminate. Without even realizing it, you could end up installing shady apps that do more damage than good on your device.
In contrast, a premium VPN service rarely turns to ads since the company already receives recurring payments from its customers. Some of them even throw in an ad-blocker or malware protection module. For example, NordVPN has CyberSec designed for this exact job.
3. Collects and sells your data to third parties
One of the benefits of using a virtual private network tool is that you can hide your browsing history and other details about your online identity from your ISP.
Opting for a VPN means shifting that trust from your ISP to your VPN provider. As soon as you connect to a server, the VPN provider can see what you are doing, provided that it is equipped with the right technology.
But, if it dedicates itself to protecting your privacy, the company drops these technologies in favor of your privacy to make sure that it keeps your online identity and VPN activities anonymous.
Speaking of hidden dangers of free VPNs, this is probably the worst. Most free VPN providers not only have the technology necessary for monitoring and collecting your data, but they also sell it to third parties in exchange for profit.
The best example is Hola VPN. In 2015, it was revealed that Hola VPN was creating exit nodes out of free VPN customers. And it shared the idle resources of their systems to premium customers who used Luminati, Hola’s sister service. To opt-out of this, it was necessary to pay for Hola VPN PLUS.
These terms of service are still available today. As such, the concerned community created the Adios, Hola! website to warn people about the hidden dangers of this unreliable VPN service offered for free.
4. Provides poor Internet connection speed
Generally speaking, a VPN application decreases your Internet connection speed no matter what you do. It is normal. VPN encryption requires more processing power to encapsulate each packet of data in a secure layer.
Once all data packets reach their intended destination, the VPN must also remove the layer and reconstruct the original message in unecrypted form. It is a complex process that takes its toll on your Internet connection speed.
However, when it comes to free VPN services, you will always encounter slow connection speed. The hidden danger here is that the VPN provider intentionally reduces your Internet speed to force you into paying for better performance with a premium subscription plan.
This unhealthy practice is not illegal, unfortunately. It is adopted by VPN providers like ProtonVPN. But ProtonVPN is, at least, honest about it, although it does not say what “medium speed” means exactly.
This kind of practice is also adopted by some Internet service providers. If you are paying for the cheapest plan, your ISP might be throttling your connection speed to trick you into buying a more expensive monthly plan.
5. Limits your network bandwidth for VPN traffic
Just like a VPN provider can throttle your connection speed, it can also limit the network bandwidth dedicated to VPN traffic. In fact, some of the most popular free VPNs do this, in an effort to push you into paying for a premium subscription plan.
For instance, TunnelBear offers only 500Mb per month, which is not enough for streaming or torrenting. It barely covers web browsing, as long as you do not visit sites with many images and videos.
6. Cannot unblock Netflix and other streaming services
If you are planning to install a free VPN service on your computer just to be able to binge-watch the latest season of your favorite TV series on Netflix, you should not be surprised if the VPN does not work. Most likely, you will encounter the Netflix proxy error every time you switch to a new VPN server.
Streaming services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, HBO Now, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and even YouTube use geoblocking techniques. As such, they go to great lengths to detect and block proxy servers, VPN services, Tor, Smart DNS, and others.
It involves monitoring and blocking the IP addresses used by circumvention tools. And, if the service is free for all, it means that all IP addresses are public. So, if you are trying to use a free VPN to get past geoblocks, you can rest assured that Netflix will immediately lock you out of its system.
Let us assume that you do manage to lift the Netflix restrictions using a free VPN. But, to create a realistic scenario, we must throw into the mix at least one of the previous two points we talked about: decreased connection speed or limited bandwidth.
It will be impossible to watch Netflix when your VPN bandwidth is restricted (like TunnelBear’s monthly 500Mb). And, if you are using a free VPN that limits your connection speed, you will not be able to enjoy shows while also experiencing buffering.
To give you a better picture, some premium VPN services have special categories designed for streaming sites like Netflix, such as CyberGhost VPN.
Meanwhile, ExpressVPN has Smart DNS technology built into its MediaStreamer feature, which lets you enjoy Netflix at full speed because it only spoofs your location but does not encrypt your data.
7. Makes few VPN servers available
In addition to the fact that IP addresses used by free VPN providers are public and easy to block by streaming services like Netflix, there are few VPN servers available, too.
In fact, you will rarely come across a free virtual private network service with many servers to make you feel comfortable about your secure browsing.
If the VPN also has a paid counterpart, then you will most likely see a list of VPN servers where most of them are inaccessible. It is a common marketing technique to show you there are, in fact, many servers available, but you must pay to be able to use them.
This can be considered a hidden danger because few people are aware of this. When you see a list of servers, you evidently believe that you can access any of them.
Therefore, you can end up downloading and installing a free VPN app that may contain ads or even sell your traffic to others. And, in exchange, you will not even be able to connect to VPN countries you are interested in.
On top of that, if many people connect to the same free VPN server (as it usually happens), the server becomes crowded and cannot work properly anymore.
It could slow down or cripple your connection speed, refuse to connect you to the server, or even fail to hide your IP address. If the free VPN provider also adopts a priority-based configuration, then it will always allow a paying customer to connect, instead of a free user.
8. Does not provide customer support
Issues are bound to happen all the time, especially when it comes to software. And virtual private network tools make no exception. But issues are even more common with free VPNs.
You might come across a VPN error code or another problem, like IP leaks and DNS leaks. It might also be impossible to connect to a particular VPN server, unblock Netflix, download torrents, or access specific websites because they refuse VPN connections.
Granted, free VPN services are typically not equipped with the right tools to prevent these issues from happening. But you might not know that.
Therefore, the next logical step is to contact the customer support line of your free VPN provider and ask for assistance. However, you should not be surprised if the support service is slow, cannot fix your problem, recommends you to update to the paid plan to fix your issues, or simply does not exist at all.
Customer assistance is expensive to maintain. And no amount of ad revenue can support human resources. There is no workaround for this, so you have to deal with your issue on your own.
9. Lacks advanced security features
VPN providers do not have an interest in facilitating advanced security features in their free virtual private network tools. Otherwise, they would have no reason to lure you into making a recurring payment for a premium solution.
If you wish to avoid exposing your true IP address and location to the sites you visit, do not expect to find advanced security features like a kill switch, private DNS, IPv6 and DNS leak protection, split tunneling, double VPN, or support for torrenting and Tor.
This is not a problem of premium VPN services, though. They come shipped with all security features created by the VPN developer. Also, they receive updates frequently with new features, improvements and bug fixes.
Plus, most VPN providers listen to the requests of their customers and take them into account when coming up with new options and configuration settings.
10. Many free VPN services are owned by the same company
A serious hidden danger to experimenting with various free VPN solutions is that you might end up trying apps owned by the same company. And, if you wish to avoid a specific company because of bad practices in the past or simply because you do not like it, this could easily fool you.
For example, the AnchorFree company is linked with Hotspot Shield, TouchVPN, JustVPN, Betternet, VPN in Touch, VPN 360, and Hexatech.
Furthermore, an investigation indicated that about 60% out of all top-rated free VPN apps available for Android and iOS belong to VPN providers based in China or with Chinese ownership.
How to protect yourself from the hidden dangers of free VPN
The answer is simple and painfully obvious: ditch the free VPN service and opt for a premium VPN from the start.
It is reasonable to tell yourself that you could experiment with a free VPN service for a while to try and get the feel of it. This could help you decide later if it is worth paying for a premium subscription plan.
But, after understanding the hidden dangers of free VPN, you should realize why the experiment would not deliver accurate results.
A trustworthy VPN service does not hamper or limit your connection speed, collect and sell your data, display ads, or infect you with malware. It also works with Netflix and has tons of security features.
It can be challenging to choose the right VPN for the job, though. If you are looking for a piece of advice, you should let us help you find the best VPN.
When we reviewed ExpressVPN, we expected a premium VPN solution that does not display ads or integrate third-party software in its setup package, which is true.
It has a strict no-logging policy ensured by TrustedServer, an exclusive technology that runs VPN servers only on RAM and wipes data on every reboot. It does not collect or sell your VPN traffic to third parties.
The company has safe jurisdiction because it is based in the British Virgin Islands, a territory not governed by data retention laws. It does not own any other VPN brands except for ExpressVPN. And it has never been at the center of controversies.
As proof, it was involved in a Turkish investigation when to help identify a suspect. That person allegedly used ExpressVPN and was linked to the assassination of a Russian ambassador. But the VPN company could not help because it did not have any logs on customers.
During our tests, ExpressVPN delivered excellent speed, ranging from 35 Mbps to 62 Mbps. It allows up to five simultaneous connections and can be installed on many devices, including Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, macOS, and even routers in OpenVPN manual configuration mode.
Furthermore, ExpressVPN can unblock the US library of Netflix, along with other streaming services like BBC iPlayer, HBO Now, and Amazon Prime. It has Smart DNS technology integrated with its MediaStreamer feature to ensure no buffers or connection delays (MediaStreamer does not apply encryption).
The premium VPN solution has over 3,000 servers spread across 160 locations and 94 countries, so you will never run out of server options. It also has advanced security features, including DNS and IPv6 leak protection, private DNS, kill switch, split tunneling, and obfuscated servers for people who need to conceal the fact that they are using VPN.
It is one of the few VPN providers that offer 24/7 live chat support. The only downside to ExpressVPN is that it is a bit more expensive than other premium VPNs. But it makes up for it by offering a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Thus, it allows you to test it fully for one month, after which you can change your mind if you are not completely satisfied with the service. If we convinced you that ExpressVPN is the real deal, you can get a subscription plan here.
It is not worth considering free VPN services, particularly if you plan to secure your browsing on the long term. While a premium virtual private network solution is not always cheap, you could look at it as investing in the privacy and security of your online identity.
If you are compelled by your job to spend a lot of time in front of your computer, or if you simply wish to enjoy the benefits of a VPN solution, then it is definitely worth the money.
What is your experience with free VPN services? We would love to hear what you have to say, so please do not hesitate to leave us a comment in the section below.