Will a VPN Make You Safer Online?

Category: Privacy

A reader asks, “Do I need a VPN to be secure online? Should I subscribe to a VPN service, such as SaferWeb? What is a VPN, anyway?” Read on to learn about virtual private networks, and find out if you need one...

What is a VPN?

“VPN” stands for “Virtual Private Network.” A private network is one in which only authorized parties can participate. To grossly oversimplify, a Virtual Private Network is a private network set up on the public Internet, using encryption to ensure that no uninvited parties can eavesdrop on those who are authorized to participate in the VPN.

VPNs are popular among multi-location businesses. A VPN allows all the locations of such a business to communicate with each other via the public Internet privately and securely, without all the expense of dedicated hard wires running between all locations. Also, mobile workers can connect to a VPN from any Internet access point and exchange confidential data with other guests on the VPN.

Let’s look at how you would use a VPN service to communicate with a website. As a subscriber to a VPN service, your computer has VPN client software installed on it which enables it to connect securely and invisibly with the service provider’s VPN server. When you type your desired website's address into your browser, that data is encrypted and sent to the service provider’s VPN server. The VPN server then initiates a connection to the target site and securely relays data between you and the site.

VPN Services - pros and cons

This sounds like the “secure connection” indicated by the “https:” protocol that every Web browser can provide, doesn’t it? And it is, as far as the “secure connection” part goes. But a VPN (sometimes referred to as a proxy) also conceals the IP address of the person using it. When you access a website using a VPN, it appears to that site as if you came from the IP address of the VPN server, and not your own. And that's quite often the desired effect.

Why, you might wonder? I suppose some folks who are ultra privacy conscious may want to cover their tracks in this manner. But scammers in Nigeria can also use this technique to make it look like they are located in the USA, and avoid tripping fraud alarms.

Accessing Blocked Content

UPDATE: After publishing this article, I was reminded about the WebRTC flaw, which can "leak" your actual IP address, even when using a VPN or proxy service. To mitigate this problem, browser addons for Chrome, Firefox and Opera can be installed. There is no fix for Internet Explorer, so I advise you to not use IE when connecting to a VPN.

A VPN or proxy service can also be used to get around blocks imposed by content providers or their own government. Netflix and Hulu Plus, for example, do not allow connections from outside the USA. So users in other countries have used VPNs located in the USA to gain access. Users in China are forbidden from accessing many "Western" websites such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. By using a VPN server, they can (sometimes) get around those blocks.

SaferWeb provides an example of another potential problem with using a VPN service. SaferWeb’s VPN servers are located in many countries, including China. Let's say you want to login to your online banking this way. When SaferWeb’s server tries to complete your connection to your bank, it may appear to your bank that someone in China (or Iceland, or France, or…) is trying to impersonate you. Fraud alarms will ring and your connection will be denied. Your account may even be temporarily frozen for your protection.

Another potential problem is that all data exchanged through a VPN server is stored on that server. If that server is compromised, so are you. Users of SaferWeb and other VPN services often complain that slow or lost connections are commonplace.

My Bottom Line on VPN Services

A VPN can be useful when you are using public wifi. If your laptop or smartphone is connected to a public wifi access point that does not require a password, then all non-encrypted traffic from and to your device can be easily captured or viewed by that guy in the green shirt, sitting across from you in the cafe, library or airport. If the website you are accessing starts with "http" and not "https" then your connection is not encrypted. All the green shirt guy needs is some free software that enables him to "sniff" the wifi signals being transmitted, and he can see that you're shopping for lingerie at Neiman Marcus, or whatever.

However, if you are accessing a secure site (the address starts with "https") then your connection is already encrypted, so a VPN would add no additional protection. And in most cases, any site that requires a password (your webmail, bank, social media, etc.) is already using a secure https connection to protect your privacy.

If you access non-secure sites via public wifi, a VPN may be a good idea. If you're traveling abroad, and you absolutely must watch your favorite shows on Netflix or Hulu, then you might want to subscribe to a VPN service. If you're a Nigerian scammer who wants to order stuff on US-based websites using stolen credit cards, you definitely want to use a VPN. Otherwise, it's probably unnecessary and a waste of money.

If you do need a VPN, you may not have to spend money on a subscription. If you have a computer at home, and you travel with a mobile device, you can install a free VPN server such as UltraVNC.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Will a VPN Make You Safer Online?"

(See all 23 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

03 Nov 2016

I discovered by going to 'What Browser Am I using' website, even using my Avira phantom VPN, my true location could still be determined using webrtc. This gives a false sense of security using a VPN. Adding 'Disable WebRTC' add-on from Mozilla prevents this stealth tracking. VPN providers do not seem to mention the webrtc vulnerability.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks for the tip. The WebRTC flaw can "leak" your actual IP address, even when using a VPN or proxy service. To mitigate this problem, browser addons for Chrome, Firefox and Opera can be installed. (See links above.) There is no fix for Internet Explorer, so I advise you to not use IE when connecting to a VPN.

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
03 Nov 2016

I've not had a problem with the free Betternet VPN on my Windows 10 laptop or my Android phone.

Posted by:

03 Nov 2016

I have used a VPN, but it was for chatting & playing games. I didn't like it, however thinking about it, a VPN might be good for going on Facebook! LOL :O)

I have found that the most important thing for security is to keep your Anti-Virus and Malware program up to date. Watch where you are going on the Internet as well. It is important to be as cautious as possible. Will you achieve success - Yes, overall but you can still get some viruses or malware.

It is not always your fault that your security wasn't as protective as you thought. DDOS are becoming more and more common these days. Remember that - Especially when you try to access your financial institution(s)! Hacking into secure websites for businesses can be very profitable. This is why we hear about hacked websites more these days. Ransomware is a product of hacking, period.

I am still in disbelieve that hospitals have been hacked and held hostage with Ransomware. When Bob had an article about Ransomware, Bob mentioned one of the hospitals that I knew about in Hollywood, CA. I was floored - Not because it happened, but that anyone would violate a hospital.

Posted by:

Luis Brathwaite
03 Nov 2016

An alternative is use of the built-in free VPN in the most recent Opera browser. To use the VPN it must to be enabled in MENU--> SETTINGS--> PRIVACY & SECURITY--> VPN --> ENABLE VPN (check mark).

Posted by:

john silberman
03 Nov 2016

I am not aware of any reputable VPN provider that saves all data exchanged through their server as suggested above. Most good VPN providers take pride in not even saving any logs whatsoever.

My recommendation is to always have a VPN available to use for your PC and smartphone. You don't need to be connected continuously, but they are nice to have when needed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I didn't mean to imply that a VPN provider would store your data. My concern was that a VPN server might be compromised, and customer data temporarily stored during a session could be accessed.

Posted by:

03 Nov 2016

I think most modern routers now have a VPN server capability, I have an ASUS router than supports many types of VPN server protocols. When I am using public wifi to do sensitive transactions I connect to my home VPN server first.

Posted by:

04 Nov 2016

Uh...I use a well known anti-virus program that also has a VPN "deal" available--for $$, of course. From what you wrote, it appears that I have paid for nothing useful. Thus, when my subscription to this VPN is up for renewal, the AV folks can keep their service. Their "blurb" sure made it seem as if it was absolutely necessary to protect any transaction I may have with my bank, for instance. Bummer. Thanks for the info.

Posted by:

04 Nov 2016

I live in Tecate, Mexico and use a paid VPN, Nord. I mostly use it to order from Amazon, etc. and, when using my local ISP, I get directed to Mexican sites, example Walmart. I tried to use it to watch the US version of Netflix, but made the mistake of signing up with my original US account info and it gives me the Mexican version, which I find satisfactory. It works well with i heart radio also.

Posted by:

04 Nov 2016

I too have been using the Opera browser VPN with good success. Using a WiFi connection even if it's to a secure receiver, I wonder about the security between computer and the router. Opera also has a VPN server that works with android phone for unsecured WiFi connections in libraries, cafes, etc.

Give it a test!

Posted by:

Jeff Lindsay
04 Nov 2016

Here in China VPN is essential for many Westerners. Without it, we can't use Facebook, Twitter, Bloomberg, the New York Times, Reuters, etc. But Netflix cannot be accessed: Netflix' own policies forbid use when coming in via VPN. That started around the beginning of this year. An unnecessary policy that alienates many.

Posted by:

04 Nov 2016

Hi Bob, I followed the UltraVNC link above and got an odd-looking screen with the message: WARNING: www.ultravnc.com NOT owned by us. Please update links to www.uvnc.com What's going on?

EDITOR'S NOTE: UVNC.com is the correct link. The site is warning you that ULTRAVNC.com is not theirs. Another VNC provider has registered that domain, causing confusion.

Posted by:

04 Nov 2016

Many streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and even Amazon Video are now blocking VPN connections. It was once easy to get US content outside of the US; but it seems that it is becoming locked down.

Posted by:

Mr Beans
06 Nov 2016

My question: how do sites such as Netflix etc know if you are using a VPN?

Posted by:

Mr Beans
06 Nov 2016

My question: how do sites such as Netflix etc know if you are using a VPN?

Posted by:

10 Jan 2017

To connect safe (+/-) on Netflix and similar you must use a dedicated IP address on your VPN.

Posted by:

12 Jun 2017

One obvious fact becomes crystal clear for long time readers of AskBobRankin: Internet used to be called WorldWideWeb; morphing into WorldWideWait; which has become WorldWideWorry.
Some may call them 'paranoid' but even bringing a gun to gun fight; yet forgetting to load it, may have severe consequences.
Thank you, Mr. Rankin for keeping us vigilante about the threats that lurk in our connected world and the arsenal of tools that are available for those who prefer to travel with less worry (but more paranoia)!

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

Anyone (Bob, you too) know anything about Nordvpn.com?

Posted by:

23 Apr 2018

For the question on NordVPN, it's an excellent VPN service. Do a little research on google on some reviews for any VPN service and make your own decision on what's best for you.

Posted by:

Eve Hunt
23 Nov 2018

I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your website.
It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable

Posted by:

Alisha Ross
16 Jan 2019

There are more and more restrictions on the Internet in China, and I Wonder if 12VPN or ExpressVPN are still reliable at the moment in China. I am going there for a month and would like to know if I need to download it before leaving.
Alisha Ross

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