7 Hidden Dangers to Using Free VPNs in 2019

Everyone loves getting free stuff, so it’s no wonder that some of the most popular VPNs are those that advertise themselves as free.  

Unfortunately, nothing is without its cost, and free VPNs are no different. You may not be paying in dollars, but by using a free VPN you will end up paying a price.

Some of these costs are merely inconvenient, but others are downright dangerous.

Below, we’re going to go over the potential pitfalls of downloading a free VPN, so you can make smarter, more informed choices about the VPN that’s right for you.

As you’ll see, free VPNs will not only fail to get you access to the geo-blocked sites you want, but will also compromise your security and privacy – ironically, doing the exact opposite of what you want your VPN to do.

You Do End Up Paying for Your Free VPN – But Not in the Way You Think

Here are some of the drawbacks of using a free VPN:

1. They Compromise Your Security

One of the primary purposes of a VPN is to protect you from hackers, so it’s more than alarming to find out that there are VPNs out there that can actually compromise your security.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be the case when a study of 283 VPNs revealed that among other free providers, Betternet, SuperVPN, and CrossVPN all contain malware. In fact, 38% of VPNs in the study showed signs of being infected.

Image: Free VPNs are much more likely than paid VPNs to contain malware. An AV rank of more than two is considered a trustworthy indicator that malware is present in an app.

Most of the malware is related to advertising – which makes sense considering free VPNs don’t have the obvious source of revenue paid VPNs do. This is also why a VPN that limits the data you’re allowed to use is less likely to be dangerous than one that promises a free product without an obvious catch.

The free VPN  Hola is also plagued with security problems. Besides a major botnet scam, the fact that they tunnel traffic through their users computers (rather than their own servers) means someone else could use your IP address to engage in illegal or otherwise unsavory activity.

2. They Track Your Online Activity

In our opinion, this is the worst offense a VPN can make – and disturbingly, it’s the most common.

A major reason you likely use a VPN is to protect your privacy while browsing the internet. It is therefore extremely ironic that the study mentioned above also found that 72% of free VPNs are embedded with third party trackers.

Image: Only 28% of free VPNs were found to be free of third party trackers – which means 72% are collecting data on your online activity.

These trackers are used to gather data on your online activity, usually so advertisers are better able to show you targeted ads.

So basically, instead of providing you privacy, the VPNs are doing the exact opposite, by collecting your information and selling it to the highest bidder.

While some VPNs hide the fact that they sell your data, others admit to it in their own privacy policies. For instance: 

This is from Psiphon’s privacy policy:

Image: The free VPN Psiphon explicitly states that, “We sometimes use advertisements to support our service, which may use technology such as cookies and web beacons. Our advertising partners use of cookies enable them and their partners to serve ads based on your usage data.”

And this is from Hoxx’s:

Image: According to the free VPN Hoxx’s privacy policy, “By using the Services, You acknowledge, consent and agree that we may collect, process, and use the information that you provide to us and that such information shall only be used by us or third parties…”

Notably, VPNs that you have to pay for were found to have few trackers not only when compared to free VPNs, but also when compared to other apps in general. This means that in most cases, when you buy a premium plan, you actually do get the privacy that you’re paying for.  

3. They Don’t Unblock Netflix

Currently, there is no free VPN out there that will reliably unblock Netflix.

Yes, it’s possible to occasionally succeed in getting Netflix using Tunnelbear, but it’s far from guaranteed to work. More often than not, you’re going to get hit with an error message.

Image: Error message free VPN users usually get when they try to bypass the Netflix geo-block.

Plus, Tunnelbear’s free package is limited to 500 MB a month, which isn’t enough data to get through even one movie.

Similarly, ProtonVPN can unblock Netflix using particular servers, but because they deliberately slow down your internet speed, you’ll probably go crazy from the buffering before you make it through a single episode of Orange is the New Black.

Windscribe and Hotspot Shield offer Netflix access, but only to those with paid subscriptions.

It’s a real bummer, but you get what you pay for. Bypassing the Netflix block requires a lot of resources and dedication, and VPN providers just aren’t willing to give that away for free.

4. They Limit the Amount of Data You Can Use

As mentioned above, some of the top free VPNs limit the amount of data they allow for their free accounts. They do this to get you try them out, but soon you’ll realize that to really get the service you need, you’ll need to upgrade to a paid plan. It’s a pretty smart tactic actually.

Besides Tunnelbear, this model is also used by Hide.me, which limits data to 2 GB.

Image: Hide.me doesn’t just limit your data. They also limit your bandwidth and give you fewer server locations, protocols, and simultaneous connections than they give their paying customers.

5. They Slow Down Your Internet

Having your internet slow down is an issue you’ll face with a lot of poorer quality VPNs. However, having your VPN slow you down on purpose is particularly obnoxious.

This is ProtonVPN’s strategy. Although ProtonVPN provides excellent security, in order to encourage their free users to upgrade to the paid plan, they prioritize them less than their paid subscribers – meaning your internet speeds will often slow to a snail’s pace.

Image: At least ProtonVPN is upfront about how they slow internet speeds for free users.

Other ways free VPNs slow down your internet speeds is by displaying ads (see below) and by limiting your bandwidth.

6. They Bombard You with Ads

The reason some free VPNs go with this approach is pretty obvious. Since their users aren’t paying them monthly subscriptions, the companies need another way to make money.

Betternet is one provider that uses this model. Although they state on their website that they don’t show you annoying ads, in reality ads pop up whenever you connect.

Image: Betternet claims not to show you ads.

Image: Users are actually faced with ads every time they turn on the VPN.  

Similarly, Hotspot Shield’s free app is riddled with ads, an issue that has led to a lot of complaints among our readers.

Not only are ads annoying, they can also slow down your internet speeds or lead you to malicious sites.

And, because advertisers like to target particular users, the appearance of ads raises red flags when it comes user privacy. In other words, if your VPN is showing you ads, they’re probably also sharing data on your online activity with third parties.  

7. They Sell Your Bandwidth

In addition to showing ads, the VPN Hola found another way to make money off their free users: they let their paying customers use your device’s processing power – essentially selling your bandwidth for profit.

They actually state this on their website, though they spin it in a much more positive way:

Image: According to Hola’s website, “Hola generates revenue by selling a commercial version of the Hola VPN service to businesses (through our Luminati brand). This is what allows us to keep Hola free for our PC and Mac users. Users who want to enjoy the Hola network without contributing their idle resources can do so by joining the Hola premium service for $5 per month (or $45 per year).”

But what they don’t mention, is that Luminati is known to have been used in at least one botnet attack.

A botnet attack is when a large number of individual computers are infected with malware that allows them to be harnessed together in order to carry out an attack. In other words, all the computers in Hola’s network (i.e. all the ones belonging to their free users) were taken over by cyber-criminals.

And we’re not even sure that this was a one-time-incident. There are currently no procedures in place to monitor how Luminati users exploit the network, making it a perfect tool for cyber-criminals.

In short, by using Hola’s free VPN service, not only are you letting the company to sell your device’s processing power – you’re potentially allowing it to be used for truly nefarious purposes.

You Don’t Have to Pay a Ton to Get a Good VPN

Fortunately, not all premium services are expensive. For instance, NordVPN – one of the most popular VPNs on the market – is really competitive in its pricing, and regularly offers discounts.

Or you can check out these other top-rated VPNs. All of these will get you passed tough geo-blocks, have high speeds, and provide the security and privacy you want in your VPN.

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