There are many reasons why people use a VPN.
Maybe they want to disguise their physical location, browse the internet without constraints, or maintain anonymity. Whatever the reason, it’s a huge market, worth $44.6 billion U.S. in 2022, and estimated to rise to $75.59 billion by 2027.
However, as often with a lucrative market, there are many scams out there, scams that seek to take your money under false pretenses or to harvest your data for anything from marketing purposes to identity fraud.
Put simply, a VPN creates a secure connection that provides you with an extra layer between your computer/device and the internet. This extra layer gives you more privacy and anonymity if needed. You can think of VPN as acting as a middleman whenever you want to access the internet and any related sites.
Once you have a VPN active on your device, you are accessing the internet through your particular VPN provider’s own private server. By using a VPN, you are automatically hiding your IP address and thus also hiding your physical location by encrypting all the information sent from your device.
There are thousands of VPN options out there, and while many of them are completely transparent and above board, there are many more with nefarious reasons for wanting you to sign up with them. Here are ten of the main scams to be wary of when looking at VPN providers.
If a VPN provider offers a lifetime subscription then the alarm bells should ring. This is not a cheap service to operate; they need a fast and secure network of servers that can operate globally and they also need to provide good support and reliable apps. These things cost money and costs can increase, so how can they work out what your lifetime value would be and charge accordingly?
If a company offers a lifetime subscription, then walk away. They could be selling your data to cover their costs or you may find that they earn commission from the countless ads you’ll be bombarded with. Data breaches can cost businesses a lot of money. It may even be a ‘time’ con, where ‘lifetime’ refers to the life of the company (which may disappear after a year) rather than your lifetime.
One thing you’ll see a lot is the claim that your potential provider offers a logless service. This is a tricky subject as legitimate and trusted providers can also make the same claim, so you may end up a little confused. The way to proceed here is to very carefully read the service agreement to the end (avoid just clicking the accept/agree button).
If a VPN provider is untrustworthy, then you will discover in that small print the fact that the provider will log all your online activity, gathering the kind of huge volumes of data usually only seen in the Apache Hadoop ecosystem. This kind of data logging is the very antithesis of what VPN is meant to be. The data it logs could include everything from your IP address to banking details. That said, some legitimate VPNs will log data to improve services or when required by the laws of their country of origin so be sure to read that service agreement carefully.
This is closely related to the data logging scam. Companies will use the argument that as they are not located in a 5/9/14-eyes surveillance country, then they will never log your data. It’s more of a marketing scam than anything else, designed to fool you into thinking that you are safe with that particular provider.
If you are working as a remote compliance tester, then you may well want to preserve privacy of data. Now, the thing to consider here is that a VPN located in one of those countries (particularly if an EU country with strong data protection and privacy laws) is probably more trustworthy than one that makes a big song and dance about being located in an ‘eyeless’ country. If this is pushed as one of their main selling points, walk away.
Perhaps one of the most common scams, payment frauds can take many different forms. You will have seen how some SaaS and similar packages offer different pricing packages and these are usually legitimate and transparent. With a VPN scam, you may be targeted in different ways that could end up costing you a lot.
You may be offered one price but then find you pay a different (much higher) one. Your provider could also increase your subscription costs without notification. It may even be the case that you never receive the service you paid for and find it impossible to get a refund. For businesses, model risk management can help protect you from any risk.
This is another scam that shows why you should always read every single line of your subscription agreement. In some cases, subscriptions may renew without consulting you, but at a higher price than you originally agreed to. You may also find that hidden in the small print is notification of a rise in price after a certain period of time.
The other angle to this scam is a fake email purporting to be your provider that contains an invoice that confuses you or notifies you that a payment has failed. That email may ask you to call a number and to give remote access to your device to fix an issue. Big mistake. You could find your device riddled with malware and pop-ups.
A key reason for using a VPN is to maintain privacy and not give away personal information and data when browsing. When our personal info is too easily available, it leaves us susceptible to scammers and other cybercriminals.
If a potential provider asks you for a wealth of information, walk away quickly. A legitimate VPN provider only requires your email address and credit card details. Some providers may even not ask for the latter and allow you to subscribe using cryptocurrency or a prepaid gift card to further maintain privacy and anonymity.
Before you buy a new product, you usually check online reviews to see what people think and that’s no different with VPNs. Sadly, a lot of reviews you might see are fake, and that goes for personal reviews and also the numerous ‘best of’ lists you see on various supposedly independent websites.
These websites may be owned by the same company that owns the VPN provider, and many of the personal reviews are either fake or paid for. It’s worth taking some time to read reviews and testimonials from a range of sources to ensure you get a clear picture.
You may also find that some VPNs are no longer operational but their sites are still active. This means you could subscribe and then find you have a disconnected VPN (and an impossible struggle to get a refund). Always check that a VPN still works; free trials and/or recent - genuine - reviews can be a good indicator.
It’s also important to check that any VPN you are considering works on your particular OS and on your preferred device. Some VPNs have limited operability on different OS and will either not work at all or will only offer limited capabilities. If you run a business, you need to be sure you have full functionality and can do things like API calls. If using a VPN, it may be worth looking at the Make tutorial on API calls.
Everyone loves free stuff but it can still come at a price. Many (not all) free VPNs are designed purely to insert malware into your device. You will even find many of these untrustworthy VPNs on both Google and Apple Play stores and may be tempted by the huge number of downloads and good ratings.
Many of these free VPNs are launched purely to spread various forms of malware. There are legitimate ones too, of course, but you will usually find that they offer limited VPN services and that you need to subscribe to access more services.
This doesn’t apply just to VPNs but to any app that you choose to install on your device. Why would a VPN need to access your microphone? Or your precise location? The whole idea is to create a barrier of privacy and anonymity when you use a VPN, so if it asks for too many permissions, then red flags should appear.
If you have installed a VPN that asks for various permissions that seem irrelevant, you should immediately uninstall and unsubscribe (and run a malware check just in case). A legitimate VPN needs only your basic information and would never ask for multiple permissions, no matter what device you use.
The amount of information you need to know to operate safely online can sometimes seem overwhelming, from knowing the purpose of data warehouses to the best browser to use. However, using a VPN may be important to your business so you should take time to choose the right provider.
Rushing a decision could be costly in more ways than one. You could find your organization defrauded of money, a victim of identity theft, or your device riddled with malware which, if in a business, could spread across the network, potentially necessitating a shutdown of that network until the issues are resolved.
Pohan Lin is the Senior Web Marketing and Localizations Manager at Databricks, a global Data and AI provider connecting the features of data warehouses and data lakes to create lakehouse architecture.