Are Free VPNs Safe? 7 Dangers of Using a Free VPN

Millions of users resort to free VPN services to either access geo-restricted content or for privacy and security purposes. However, users have little knowledge about the permissions they grant these entities and the risks that come with it.

VPN services have become pretty popular in the online world as they encrypt your connection, make it possible to bypass geographical restrictions and have many more benefits. They are also heavily used by organizations so they make it easier to manage the library of data across multiple offices locations and to allow access to it to remote employees in a safe and secure manner.

Although we should get into the habit of using a VPN on a regular basis to protect our privacy and security online, the most common reasons why people use a VPN are not necessary for everyday activities.

Most often, people turn to use a VPN for its advantage of allowing users to unblock restricted content. Some websites and services only allow users from a specific country to use their services and, if you don't have the luck to be a resident of that country, well, you won't be able to enjoy the service.

One of the best examples here is Netflix. Netflix has a dedicated library of content for each country. And, as expected, the US platform has the most fruitful library of all. That's why many people all across the world are trying to access the US version of Netflix so they can get more movies and TV shows to choose from. Here's where a VPN comes into place. With a VPN, you can choose to connect through a server located in the US and Netflix will see your connection as coming from the US and grant you permission to the US version.

This is only one of the examples of why people are searching for a VPN. Another common reason might be to download torrents anonymously.

Because these kinds of activities don't require using a VPN on a day to day basis, most users are searching for free VPNs so they don't have to pay for something they use once in a while.

There are lots of free VPN services out there that state to encrypt your connection and protect your online privacy so you might think that you can get all the advantages of using a VPN without having to pay a dime for a service.

But are free VPNs safe to use without exposing yourself to some risks?

Keep on reading to find out about all the not so obvious risks that come with using a free VPN service so you can make an informed decision if it's worth taking the chance.

Is a free VPN safe to use?

For starters, let's look over some studies analyzing free VPN services that show the impact these apps can have on users' privacy and security.

In a study conducted by CSIRO, 283 free VPN apps for Android have bee analyzed. They found out that even though 67% of the VPN apps provide an enhancement to users' online privacy and security, 75% of them also use third-party tracking libraries and 82% request permissions to access sensitive user data, including text messages and user accounts.

Moreover, over 38% of the free VPN apps analyzed contain some type of malware. More concerning is the fact that they have more than 500k installs, 25% of them receiving at least 4-star rating, and app reviews raising concerns about malware are rare.

Although these free VPN apps promise online anonymity and security, 18% of the VPN apps implement tunneling protocols without encrypting. Around 84% of the analyzed VPN apps do not tunnel IPv6 and DNS traffic due to the lack of IPv6 support. The lack of strong encryption and the traffic leakages are actually making it easier for third parties to track online activities.

Does a free VPN really mean it is free?

The simple answer is NO.

As a general rule, most of the services online that are advertised as being free are not actually free. And the same rule applies to free VPN apps also.

Even though you're not paying with money for a free VPN app, you're paying with your privacy and security and personal information.

Free VPN apps will exploit your private data for their gain, tracking your online activity and selling your information to third-party apps. They can also exploit your internet connection and sell your bandwidth, along with some other risks you're exposing yourself to.

Let's go over the most common dangers of using a free VPN to get a better idea of how "free" a free VPN service actually is.

The dangers of using a free VPN

1. They log your online activity and sell it

This is the most common risk of using a free VPN service. You have no guarantee your private data is safe and private.

One of the reasons you're probably looking to use a VPN is to protect your online privacy from snooping eyes. Although free VPNs apps promise you that they'll make you anonymous and safe online, ironically, over 70% of these free VPN apps contain third-party trackers.

What does this mean? Well, while they most often hide your online activity from your ISP, they will exploit and use the data from themselves.

These trackers we mentioned above gather the data about your online activity and sell it to third-parties. In most cases, they are sold to advertisers so they can display targeted ads. While some VPN apps state in their privacy policy that they collect users' information, most of them make their best to hide this kind of behavior.

Having your data collected by the same app that's supposed to keep your online experience private kinda goes against the purpose of using a VPN.

2. Malware

We mentioned above how CSIRO found in their study hat 38% of the free VPN apps analyzed contained some type of malware such as spyware, adware, trojan.

This risk that comes with using a free VPN app is not one to easily pass by.

While some types of malware are not all that dangerous and are easy to get rid of, some might expose yourself to some serious risks. Through some types of malware such as trojan or keyloggers, someone can easily find out your accounts and passwords and get access to your sensitive information. Once someone manages to do this, your online security is compromised and you can end up having your identity and money stolen.

It's not uncommon for cybercriminals to often use free antivirus, firewall or VPN apps to infect users' devices with malware because these types of apps are designed to protect your devices against attacks so you wouldn't think they'll do exactly the opposite.

3. Selling your bandwidth

You're probably not expecting this, but a free VPN app can sell your bandwidth for profit.

A great example of such behavior comes from Hola, a quite popular VPN service. They harnessed the power of free users' computers and resold the bandwidth through the sister company, Luminati. Luminati is another VPN service offering bandwidth to users who need to move a large amount of traffic across the internet. The bandwidth sold by Hola was used to create a botnet attack on another site.

Would you like your computer to be taken over by cyber-criminals to conduct an attack? I believe not.

Because, at this moment, there's no way to tell how Luminati users exploit the network, we can not be certain that that was a one-time incident.

By using a free VPN service that sells your device's processing power you're also exposing yourself to the risk of having your device used for malicious activities.

4. Redirecting your traffic

Another reason why a free VPN is not safe to use is that you might find it redirecting your browser to websites without asking for your permission.

An example of such behavior is with the HotspotShield free VPN. They were found to redirect users traffic to websites such as and through the Conversant Media and Viglink networks.

5. You might get spammed with ads

Lots of free VPN apps will display ads. And this approach is pretty understandable. Because the users don't pay anything in exchange for the services, the company must find a way to make some money.

Some free VPN apps are transparent about displaying ads while some state that their app is ads free until you open up the app and have an ad thrown in your face.

Not only ads are annoying, but they can also be risky because they can trick you into accessing malicious websites.

Also, if the free VPN app displays its own ads, they are probably also selling your online activity logs to third-party advertisements companies.

6. You can't unblock Netflix

If you're looking to use a VPN to unblock websites, you won't have much luck with a free VPN app.

Even if you manage to find a free VPN that unblocks Netflix, because the internet speed is highly slowed down, you'll probably go insane because of the buffering for only one episode.

Actually, not even all the paid VPN services are able to unblock Netflix. So if you're looking for a VPN for this purpose, make sure it can unblock Netflix before you choose a VPN and register for a subscription.

One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to using a VPN is that it will slow down your internet connection.

While with reliable, paid VPN apps this is only a myth in most cases when it comes to free VPN apps, a slow internet connection is a hurtful truth.

Free VPN apps will highly slow down your connection. And, what's worst, is that they can do this on purpose. If the free VPN also has a premium subscription, they can limit your connection speed so they make you upgrade to their paid plan.

Other ways in which a VPN can make your internet run slower is by displaying ads or limiting your bandwidth.

The secure way to use a VPN

After going through this post, you should now be aware of the fact that using a free VPN is not as safe as you might've thought and it comes with multiple risks for your online privacy and security.

It doesn't mean that you have to pay a fortune to get a reliable VPN service. There are lots of cheap VPN out there that will guarantee you the online privacy and security you deserve without tracking your online activities or selling your private information to third parties.

If you're concerned about your online privacy and you want the benefits of unblocking geo-restricted content, watching your favorite TV shows at regular internet speed, or simply become anonymous online, a subscription to a trustworthy VPN provider is mandatory.

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