Have you been the victim of a VPN scam?
With the growing interest in online privacy and security, there are new VPN services popping up every week, promising 100% online anonymity and a “secure and private” browsing experience. And of course, you’ll find plenty of fake reviews to tell you they’re legit.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that many VPNs are misleading people with false marketing claims, sales gimmicks, and various scams. And because VPNs are often located in overseas jurisdictions, they will probably never be held accountable for dishonest marketing and/or outright fraud.
Since most people don’t know what to watch out for, many fall victim to these common VPN scams.
But you’re smarter than that.
Here are seven issues to avoid:
#1 Lifetime VPN subscriptions
Running a fast, safe, secure network of worldwide VPN servers with good apps and support is expensive with fixed recurring costs.
Given these high costs, how can so many VPNs be offering cheap “lifetime subscriptions”?
There are a few different explanations::
- The “free” or cheap VPN is collecting user data and selling it to third parties and advertisers (a popular and lucrative business).
- The VPN blasts you with ads or redirects your browser to third party websites – and then earns commissions on sales.
- The “lifetime” claim is a lie and they will simply cancel your “lifetime” subscription after a year or two (see VPNLand example below).
- The VPN is similar to a Ponzi-scheme, requiring an ever-increasing number of new subscribers to remain financially solvent, until the house of cards collapses.
Bottom line: The “lifetime” is actually referring to the lifetime of the VPN company – not the customer. After selling a large amount of lifetime subscriptions, the owners could simply pay themselves out and then close the business.
UPDATE: Some VPNs are now cancelling all “lifetime subscriptions” and converting these accounts to recurring paid subscriptions. Here is one example I found from VPNLand:
According to one user, he was given the following reply after he complained:
Just fyi. A “lifetime” account does not mean it will be valid till someone dies. It could be anyones lifespan – such as a cat, or lifespan of a hardware.
Don’t fall for the lifetime VPN scam.
#2 Free VPNs
Why are there so many free VPNs?
Answer: Free VPN services are being used as a tool to collect your data and resell it to third parties. Most people focus on the word “free” instead of seeing the big picture. Just like with Gmail, Facebook, and other free products, free VPNs are are just another way for companies to profit off your data.
Example: This free VPN app is called “VPN Master – Free VPN Proxy” and is officially listed in the Google Play store. Notice that it has a high rating (4.5) and approximately 100,000 downloads.
However, the “VPN Master – Free VPN Proxy” app also had eight positive hits for malware.
Below are the test results from VirusTotal:
Extra Note: This is why you should never trust ratings in the Google Play and Apple stores.
Free VPN apps make money by:
- Stealing your data (via malware, spyware, tracking, logging etc.) and reselling it to third parties
- Redirecting your browser to “partner” websites, such as e-commerce or financial sites
- Stealing your bandwidth and reselling it to third parties (see Hola on the VPN Warning List)
As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or better yet, when something is free, you are the product. (See the free VPN guide for more info.)
#3 Shady VPN apps
In general, VPN apps have proven to be a problematic in terms of privacy and security. There are a few exceptions, but the vast majority of VPN apps you find in the Google Play or Apple stores are dangerous and insecure. One team of researchers published a study on Android VPN apps that found:
- 84% will leak your real IP address
- 82% attempt to access your sensitive data (user accounts, text messages)
- 75% utilize third-party tracking
- 38% contain malware (malware, trojans, malvertising, riskware, spyware) to steal or damage your information
- 18% don’t even encrypt your data
- 16% steal user bandwidth
When you look closely at the growing VPN app scam, the scariest thing is that many of the most malware-infested apps are highly rated. This means there are literally millions of people using VPNs that contain malware and tracking. This is especially the case for free VPN apps – see the review for Betternet or VPN Master.
#4 Fake VPNs
With the growing interest in VPNs, fake VPNs are also coming onto the market. In other words, there is no VPN service at all – the scammers sell “VPN subscriptions”, and then take your money and run. One recent example of this was MySafeVPN – but there are other examples as well.
In general, it’s smart to avoid all the new VPNs flooding onto the market, promising to make you “anonymous” with their software.
If the VPN service does not have a history and track record of good performance and support, it should probably be avoided.
#5 Bogus VPN claims and features
The VPN market is full of false claims. Here are a few common examples:
- “Fastest” VPN – Many VPN services claim to be the “world’s fastest VPN.” Of course this is just marketing, with many VPNs having very mediocre speeds (usually because their servers are overloaded with users.
- Be “Anonymous” Online – The reality is that you can never be 100% anonymous online. A VPN service could still see what you are doing if they wanted to, because you’re using their server network. Furthermore, it’s very difficult to be “100% anonymous” with anything, simply due to all the developments in tracking. But if you want to get as close to anonymous as possible, use a multi-hop VPN chain, along with other best privacy practices.
- IP address “leak protection” features – Lots of VPNs promote various leak protection features that don’t actually work. The only way to verify the features is to run the VPN through a variety of VPN tests.
Here is one example from my review of PureVPN. Notice all of the leak protection settings are enabled with the VPN application (right), yet there are extensive data leaks in the test results (left).
Have your scam radar on high alert when reading the claims and features on various VPN websites.
#6 Reviews, testimonials and comments
Every week there are new VPN services being offered and dozens of fake reviews to tell you they are amazing.
Although I can’t prove it, I suspect many of the VPN “review” websites are owned and operated by a few of the large VPN providers. They have the money to pay for good reviews, comments, testimonials, and all sorts of other shill activity.
There also appears to be armies of paid commenters advocating how great certain VPNs are, especially whenever someone posts something negative. It’s good to be cautious of everything you read online when it comes to VPNs, including:
Keep in mind, many VPN “reviews” aren’t based on actual testing. These reviews aren’t reviews at all, but instead just paid marketing services.
#7 Third party sales websites
There seems to be a huge market right now for third parties selling lifetime VPN subscriptions. These middle men should be avoided. This trend raises a few questions:
- Why trust your private information and banking details to third party sales websites?
- Why is the VPN service even partnering with third party websites to offer “sales” or “lifetime subscriptions”?
It’s best to avoid middle men and third party websites – buy your subscription directly from the VPN company itself.
I have also seen examples of VPNs cancelling all lifetime subscriptions that were purchased through third parties (see VPN Land above). When the user complains, neither the VPN company nor the third party sales website take any responsibility.
My recommendation: only deal with your VPN directly, no third parties.
Watch out for VPN scams
At the end of the day, a high-quality VPN service will not be free and will not resort to various gimmicks to boost their sales numbers. They will also be transparent and should have a strong track record of providing people with a good service.
There is additional information about known issues and problematic VPN services in the VPN Warning List.
If you are done reading about scams and want to see some high-quality VPNs that have passed all the privacy and security tests (and are located in good privacy jurisdictions), check out the best VPN service report.
Last updated: 30 November 2018