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5 reasons to never trust a free VPN

"Ina Bavister" (2019-10-13)

id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> When it comes to free VPNs, there's always a price to pay. 

pexels-photo-733856.jpegGetty Think of a good virtual private network (VPN) like a bodyguard for your bank account. When you go for a stroll through the bustling lanes of public Wi-Fi, your VPN shields you from password pickpockets and keeps you out of unsafe areas. You trust your VPN -- a set of technologies that link computers together, then encrypt your data as you browse online -- with your most precious information, and maybe even your family's. So when a VPN provider offers to guard your digital life for free, the first question you should ask yourself is: What's in it for them?

With password-stealing malware on the rise, it's no surprise that the VPN market is booming, as consumers seek to protect their online information. The Global Web Index reports that 25% of internet users accessed a VPN within the past month, while VPN apps account for hundreds of millions of installs across mobile operating systems. Meanwhile, the VPN global market value's growth is projected to hit $35 billion in revenues by 2022. 

Read: Best mobile VPNs: Android and iPhone VPNs compared  

Finding a VPN you can trust isn't easy in this market. But there are some VPNs you should never, ever choose: The free ones.

1. Free VPNs simply aren't as safe
As our sister site previously reported, free VPNs can be very dangerous. Why? Because to maintain the hardware and expertise needed for large networks and secure users, VPN services have expensive bills to pay. As a VPN customer, you either pay for a premium service with your dollars or you pay for free services with your data. If you aren't ordering at the table, you're on the menu.

Some 86% of free VPN apps on both Android and iOS -- accounting for millions of installs -- have unacceptable privacy policies, ranging from a simple lack of transparency to explicitly sharing user data with Chinese authorities, according to two independent 2018 investigations into free VPN apps from Top10VPN. Another 64% of the apps had no web presence outside of their app store pages, and only 17% responded to customer support emails. 

As of June 3, Apple reportedly brought down the hammer on apps that share user data with third parties. But 80% of the top 20 free VPN apps in Apple's App Store appear to be breaking those rules, according to a June update on the Top10VPN investigation.

As of August, 77% of apps are flagged as potentially unsafe in the Top10VPN VPN Ownership Investigation -AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional (SAP-C00) and 90% of those flagged as potentially unsafe in the Free VPN Risk Index -- still pose a risk. 

"Google Play downloads of apps we flagged as potentially unsafe have soared to 214 million in total, rocketing by 85% in six months," the report reads.

"Monthly installs from the App Store held steady at around 3.8 million, which represents a relative increase as this total was generated by 20% fewer apps than at the start of the year as a number of apps are no longer available."

On Android, 214 million downloads represent a lot of user login data, culled from unwitting volunteers. And what's one of the most profitable things one can do with large swaths of user login data? 

2. You can catch malware 
Let's get this out of the way right now: 38% of free Android VPNs contain malware, a CSIRO study found. And yes, many of those free VPNs were highly-rated apps with millions of downloads. Your odds of catching a nasty bug are greater than one-in-three. 

So ask yourself which costs less: A quality VPN service for about a hundred bucks a year, or hiring an identity theft recovery firm after some chump steals your bank account login and social security number?

But it couldn't happen to you, right? Wrong. Mobile ransomware attacks are skyrocketing. Symantec detected more than 18 million mobile malware instances in 2018, constituting a 54% year-over-year increase in variants. And Kaspersky recently noted a 60% spike in password-stealing trojans. 

But malware isn't the only way to make money if you're running a free VPN service. There's an even easier way.