Everything You Need to Know About VPNs
Are you reading this blog post on a Virtual Private Network – a VPN? If you are, you can stop right here. You’re probably well versed already on the added online security this easy-to-use tool offers. But, if you’re unfamiliar with VPNs, this article is for you. Because people who use the Internet – everyone, in other words – should do so over a Virtual Private Network.
You see, in much of life, if something we’re doing seems private, it probably is. When we’re trying on clothes in a store’s fitting room, it’s extremely unlikely someone is watching us physically or electronically. The Internet is different. You might be alone with your laptop, but it’s not private at all. Someone is always following you around watching what sites you’re visiting and what you’re up to. It could be for a relatively innocuous reason such as feeding you ads that appeal to your interests. But sometimes it’s for a far more malicious purpose, like stealing your personal or financial information. And if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network at a mall, in an airport or coffee shop, you’re really exposed.
That’s why you should be using a VPN – it helps to ensure that your private online activity stays that way.
How a VPN works – the simple explanation
If you want to use a VPN for your personal online activity (as opposed to business-related use as – many companies set up their own VPNs for you to access their network when you’re out of the office), first you have to sign up with a VPN service, and then you have to download their VPN app (also called a VPN client). When you want to go online, you use the app to connect to your VPN service, and they encrypt your identifying information before sending you on to the Internet, so your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will only see encrypted data. They will not be able to see which websites you’re visiting, nor will they be able to provide governmental agencies, like the NSA, with that information.
In addition to your ISP, websites you visit will be kept in the dark about your identity, too. They won’t be able to see your computer’s unique IP address; they’ll only be able to see the IP address of the VPN server you’re using.
How much thought have you given to the public networks you join? There’s a whole category of cybercrime called “evil twin” websites whereby bad guys set up a fake free Wi-Fi network where you would expect to find a real one, like an airport, shopping mall, etc. You want to check your email and oh, look, free Internet! Next thing you know, you’ve logged on to a network expressly designed for someone to steal as much of your valuable information as they can. Unless you’re logging on through a VPN (which works with your phone as well as your other devices) – then all your data will be encrypted before they can get their hands on it.
Don’t be tempted by free VPN
Hopefully, by now you’re convinced, so you’ve started researching your options for a VPN service. And look – a lot of companies are offering it for free! Tempting, right? But think about it – it costs a lot of money to provide a service like VPN, and it has to come from somewhere. Free is never really free, and sometimes the costs can be very high indeed.
On the legitimate end of the spectrum, some providers do offer a trustworthy VPN that’s free, but it’s more of a free trial. The idea is to give you a taste but limit it in such a way that you’re willing to pay for an upgrade. You can typically pay by the month or get a reduced rate for paying by the year.
On the unscrupulous end of the spectrum, you can find free VPN services set up to do nothing more than harvest your data. Talk about bitterly ironic!
The moral: a trustworthy, effective VPN is well worth paying for. And it doesn’t even cost a lot, especially compared to the cost of dealing with identity theft.
A small expense that can save you a lot of money and aggravation
There are lots of VPN services that do a good job of protecting your online privacy. Here are links to a couple of “best of” lists for 2020:
Very roughly, you can expect to pay around six to twelve bucks a month or $40 to $120 a year. The longer you sign up for, the cheaper the rates tend to get. Another avenue to explore if you want to cut the price further are the well-known anti-virus software makers. Many of them offer a VPN at a discount for customers who also buy their virus protection products.
- Make sure the license you purchase supports all your devices at the same time. Install the VPN on your desktop, laptop, phone, and tablet so that you are protected everywhere. Some licenses support up to 5 devices simultaneously.
- Learn how to tell the VPN is running. There’ll be an icon on your laptop somewhere and your phone will probably display “VPN” next to the wireless icon.
- Make sure your VPN is set to start automatically when the device starts. There’s no point buying one if it is not running.
To sum things up, it’s a good idea to use a VPN whenever you go online, especially if you ever use public networks. It’s an even better idea to be willing to pay a bit for it. As always, do your research – you can start with the list of articles below.