VPNs have done a lot for people online. In the last decade, they have become more streamlined and reliable. A lot of this is from controversial actions taken by governments in North America and Europe. Mass surveillance is something that can potentially affect anyone, and VPNs play a large part in lowering user’s public activities. Although the nature of the internet is inherently public, using a proxy with encryption will all but ensure that no one has access to what you do on the sites you like to visit.
With this being said, VPNs are far from perfect and have aspects that should be improved. One major improvement that’s needed across the board is scams. It’s quite a harsh word but the reality is that VPNs utilize all sorts of schemes to get user clicks on their sites. And the more traffic that comes their way, the more funds are acquired by them. Below are several types of scams used by VPNs, along with a list of things you can do to avoid falling victim to them. Let’s begin!
How VPNs work
VPNs work by assigning your several proxy servers that reroute your traffic to your computers. When it arrives there, the signal is then directed to the destination servers you want to open. In addition to this are protocols. Protocols allow the traffic that’s routed to remain hidden, so all the information that’s exchanged can only be read by way of opening the key (or password) of the user’s subscription account. Some operating systems can only take specific protocols, while others are equipped to handle them all. The standard encryption is AES, usually 128 or 256 bits. Many VPNs will advertise this as “military-grade encryption,” which is correct. The technology was pioneered by the US armed forces and later passed down to the civilian world.
VPNs may also act as firewalls, granting or preventing other applications from connecting to the internet. Such permissions can be granted or refrained from if preferred. The featured is commonly called a “kill switch,” which cuts off all communication when a user’s internet goes off without warning. VPNs of the past did not have this attribute, something that allows programs to reconnect when an online signal is reestablished. It’s a good way for users to prevent their ISP from inadvertently finding out what programs or sites are visited. If not for this, ISPs could blacklist and discontinue service with their customers.
What to Know Before You Subscribe to a VPN
If you’re familiar with VPNs, then you probably understand how they will allow you to access content that’s blocked by your provider. This is true for both free and paid version, with most of them existing as either a program housed on a website or through your operating system’s web store. Payment options are done through credit, debit, PayPal, and sometimes cryptocurrency.
The most popular choice of crypto would be Bitcoin, abbreviated as BTC. Altcoins could be supported as well. Digital currency is a good way for users to stay anonymous (under certain conditions) while they’re using VPNs, which will be detailed further later. Subscription times may vary but generally range between a month and up to a year. Some have plans that can go for much longer.
Common VPN Scams
Here are some of the most common VPN scams for you to know before you decide if the technology is right for you.
Questionable Subscription Times
VPNs are most often paid for through subscriptions. Prices generally range from $10 to just under $100, depending on the length of time that you purchase the service for. If you ever look at the way VPNs market themselves, you’ll quickly realize that something seems a bit off with payment advertising. Many of them will showcase their prices with the cheapest option first. However, the truth is that is isn’t like the “cheapest” option that you can get from them.
For example, if you see a VPN that lists the lowest-priced item as just $1.99 per month, this would likely be the cost of a yearly (or bi-yearly) service, not reflecting the total price that you would pay. That means the cost can be multiplied by the number of months that you will have the service for. And in this case, that total would be $23.88 for a year. It’s an annual cost that VPNs oftentimes break down on a per-month scale to make the deal look more attractive. And while it certainly would be cheaper for someone to get such a plan if they anticipated using it for this amount of time, it could be taken as deceptive advertising.
Another risky payment choice would be lifetime plans. Although it may superficially seem like a solid deal to get with a trusted VPN, here’s why you should consider not going such a route: You never know if or when the VPN service would fold. VPNs may sometimes change their service or get bought out by a new company. If that happens, then the plan that you were on could be put in jeopardy. This has happened before, and there’s likely no way for you to get your money back. If you insist on getting a lifetime plan with one, be sure to thoroughly read up on the VPN’s user agreement.
If they mention anything about customers not being eligible to receive their money back in such a case (more often than not they do), then you should avoid the plan altogether. If you do this, you’ll also have more freedom to move about newer, better VPNs if they come along; you wouldn’t be stuck with a service that you could later regret in the future.
VPNs that advertise as “Free”
Free VPNs aren’t really free at all. You can spot them on most web stores, and doing a Google search will pull up even more. But most of them are just schemes to collect your personal information for profit. They often sell such data to third party websites, since personal info is so highly sought after in the online world. But this can also be used against you, as some of the free VPNs may not even know exactly where the money comes from.
In other words, information such as your full name, payment info, and even residential address could end up in someone else’s hands. VPNs that do this have been described as thinly masked botnets, a series of computers that are controlled or monetized by one single server. Although not all free VPNs applications take part in such deceptive ways to make money, it’s difficult to find those that do.
Applications that are Technically Malware
This goes hand in hand with the section above. Free VPNs can also be disguised as malware. Initially, it might be hard for users to see what free applications are malicious and what isn’t, especially if they’re unfamiliar with using VPN services. The best thing is to stick to what you know, and only download apps from trusted sources. These programs can be installed onto user’s computers, which would open a hole for even more malware to install to your computer. Try to remember to scan any new files that you put on your PC and use caution with smartphones. Additionally, just because a piece of software comes from a trusted source that you know doesn’t mean that it can’t be vulnerable to hacking attempts, so scan those files too.
Deception After Payment is Made
Some fraudulent applications that hide themselves as VPNs will accept payments from users, but give users no download at all. If the VPN is unknown to you and appears in no review sites, then you should exercise caution when going to the site itself. Even the web address could be a phishing attempt that’s meant to retrieve your email address, whereby your password could potentially be used to hack into other accounts through social engineering. Fake VPNs aren’t flourishing as they did before, but they do still exist. Some of them may even restrict your computer from certain privileges that can only be granted if you pay a fee on the application. This is known as ransomware.
Misleading Claims by VPNs
VPNs have lots of claims that are either misleading or downright false. Here are some of them in detail:
- Fast Speeds Regardless of People on the Servers – VPNs market themselves as being fast and speedy. When they do this, they’re referring to the servers that are housed on their application. However, there’s no such thing as a “fast” VPN in the sense that all are dependent on the user’s internet speed and the number of people on the server. And since VPN servers are shared (with the exception of dedicated VPNs), crowding can often reduce the speed of the what’s given. Remember, if you have slow internet, a “fast” VPN will go at half the speed of your ordinary rate without it. But even with a fast internet plan, rates would stay significantly lower when you connect. And while servers that are situated in the Americas and Europe can work better, this is due to the higher level of bandwidth that’s allocated to the servers there.
- Logging – This is a big one because no matter what a VPN tells you, all of them take part in some form of logging. The deception comes in when they don’t explain what specific info is and isn’t being logged to their database. A few have gotten smart and decided to re-market themselves using keywords such as “no traffic logs.” This is admittedly a bit more honest than those that stick to the direct lie. Traffic logs contain information about the websites you visit on the servers, something that occurs most often with free VPNs. What they might not tell you is that logging can also be done on the company’s website, along with the application itself. By application, this describes the portion of that isn’t encrypted. Things such as you sign in time or number of devices online could be monitored. Yet to be fair, this type of logging is usually done to make needed changes to the VPN in the future. But since explaining this isn’t as appealing as saying a misleading claim, VPNs will continue to promote themselves as apps that never collect user data.
- Impenetrable Leak Protection – Leaks happen with VPNs all the time. If you can to a trusted review site, you’ll find people that have subscribed to VPNs that have no leak protection that doesn’t completely work. Although some of them can prevent your applications from being read by your ISP when the internet comes on, the technology can often be faulty. The best tools for preventing DNS and IP leaks are firewalls themselves, which can be configured on all major operating systems. Doing this can require some advanced knowledge but it’s better than relying solely on a VPN.
Not Really Anonymous
Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have emerged as the best way for users to keep themselves anonymous online. But when VPNs claim that your payment details remain entirely anonymous, they’re wrong. All Bitcoin transactions are public record and can be tracked through Blockchain, a digital archive of records used in cryptography. This includes BTC. Whenever someone makes a Bitcoin transaction, that info is automatically sent to Blockchain and stored indefinitely. The records are known as “blocks.” The only means of making your VPN purchase completely untraceable is by mixing up the Bitcoins or using altcoins that aren’t archived at all.
The first option must be done with a Bitcoin mixer, which involves the use of two BTC wallets, one ordinary and the other anonymous. Currency is sent to the mixer, traveling to the wallet that isn’t attached to your name. The second option is done with such altcoins as Dash, Monero, or ZCash. There are a few others, but these are the three you’ll probably find on some VPNs websites. If you want to keep yourself unknown to a VPN that you consider downloading, use these coins first before trying out BTC (unless that’s the only option provided).
User reviews can also be scams. Here are the details below:
- Reviews/Evaluations – Fake reviews have become a major problem online. You’ll see them virtually everywhere, from YouTube to Amazon. Such reviews make it difficult to know whether or not the product you’re looking at can be trusted. And when done well, they can be very hard to detect. The easiest way to spot them is by looking at the frequency of good and bad reviews in total. IF you see individuals making claims about a protect that entirely the opposite of what others have said, then the VPN review could be seen as suspect. That is, the evaluations that give little too much praise to a product. People that aren’t in it for the money will usually keep things neutral, but even that doesn’t guarantee that such a review is fake. Companies aren’t legally required to have morals, so it’s unlikely that things will change with this any time soon. You could look for websites that allow verified users to review VPNs, a good way to find objective opinions about a platform.
- Online Comments – Even forum and new aggregates and contain fake reviews for VPNs. Although it might be difficult to prove with 100% accuracy, no better place is this exemplified than Reddit. The act of a person or group hiding the entity that sponsors them is called astroturfing. Lots of companies do it and the net is filled with fake comments that seek to change negative conversations about a given product. There are even organizations hired out by other companies that specialize in this sort of manipulation. Spotting these schemes can be hard, but not impossible. Like reviews, comments from individuals and groups that are too positive should be viewed with suspicion. And again, it’s unethical but not illegal.
- Endorsements – VPNs may also be endorsed by third party organizations. Owners of these sites may write fake reviews or blogs that exist to drive traffic not only to the user’s site but to the VPN also. Endorsements can also be seen on YouTube. Some content creators strike deals with online companies to advertise their product for them. Don’t believe all of them if they claim that such a case isn’t true. Companies have begun to reach out heavily to social media people that have lots of subscribers, and simply mentioning a VPN by name in a post or video description could garner them good funds from said company.
What you can do to Protect Yourself from Scams
There are some safeguards that you can take to prevent being scammed by questionable VPN practices. Let’s look further:
- Don’t Subscribe for a Long Duration too Quickly – Whenever you buy a VPN, you’re agreeing to their terms of service. If you read them, you’ll find that most VPNs can cancel your subscription at any time they choose. Although this won’t happen to most, the lifetime plans should always be avoided. There’s no way for anyone to tell which will happen to a brand tomorrow, and companies get purchased by other VPNs all the time. You could suddenly find your “lifetime” plan canceled before even a year has finished. For people that need paid services, go with only a monthly plan first. If you find out something about the VPN that you don’t like, getting out the subscription is very easy. Don’t get tired up with anything longer unless you’re sure. And if you’re positive about the platform that you pick, you’ll save a lot since most longer subscriptions tend to be discounted more when compared to their monthly counterparts
- Avoid Shady Free VPN Applications – Free VPNs are best left alone. However, there are some notable exceptions. If you see a free version that also has a paid option with a lot of good (and trusted) review, you should be okay. But don’t make a habit of using those that are entirely free. Paid VPNs are the better choice since less of your private data will be monetized and sold to third parties. A good way to avoid them outright is to stick with free trial offers. Some of the paid VPNs have free plans with caps placed on your usage. Hitting your monthly cap can get annoying but at least you’ll be able to have a peace of mind from knowing that you can trust the company.
- Take Advantage During Free Trials – Again, free trials are a great way to find out whether or not a VPN is suitable for everything you need it to do. Some of them may claim to support video streaming such as Netflix but have servers that could end up getting your account blacklisted. The free trial runs can also show which application works best for hiding info from your service provider. But do be sure to cancel before the time expires. Some VPNs will still charge your account, even if you cancel several hours before the time that you started it. To be sure, always finish the trial at least 24 hours before the day that it expires
- Read User Agreements/ToS Yourself – One of the biggest advantages for customers is their ability to read the fine print of a VPNs user agreement. In it, you can learn about their refund policy and other important information that concerns the stipulations the service. But be careful; some VPNs will use language that makes it difficult to know whether or not they are for or against certain customer interactions with their applications. This can be especially true with rules regarding the use of torrents. Companies are going to protect themselves first. Keep this in mind if you live under a jurisdiction that has heavy fines against online piracy.
- Look for a Second Opinion (With Reviews) – Never place the weight of your buying decision on a single VPN review. There are droves of fake reviews for VPNs, many of them in places that you might least expect. Always go with those that appear to keep things neutral. The more objective, the better the chances are of you reading an honest evaluation. Look at multiple reviews if you need to.
Remember, you don’t have to completely avoid VPNs. They’re still good programs with features good enough to benefit even the most casual internet user. The information and pointers given above will help you be more vigilant of controversial VPN marketing practices and scams. It’s not an outright criticism of them, but rather a warning to potential customers that things aren’t always what they seem with VPN applications. Having more knowledge about the topic will only serve to improve them in the future. If more people become aware of misleading and fallacious claims, VPNs would be forced to reconsider the way they conduct business. And don’t forget, knowledgeable shoppers make satisfied users!