VPNs are powerful tools that can help keep you safe on the web, but they are not some kind of magical armor that will protect you from all online dangers, no matter how much VPN providers promise. Let’s take a look at some of the dangers that a VPN can’t help you with.

What will VPNs protect you from?

However, before we get to that, it’s probably best to review what are virtual private networks and what are they for? When you access the Internet, you do so by first connecting to a server managed by your Internet service provider. Internet which then connects to the website you’d like to visit, in this case, How-To Geek.

A VPN redirects your connection: From your ISP’s server, your connection goes to one operated by the VPN provider, and then to the site you’d like to visit. From the perspective of the website, it appears that you are accessing from a IP adress different (the VPN server’s instead of yours), which means it may appear as if it were somewhere else.

This is useful when trying access Netflix library from another country, or if you want to avoid blocks imposed by your government. This is a problem for people in Russia and China, for example, countries where the internet looks very different .

That’s the first big advantage of using a VPN, the ability to spoof your location. However, these services have another trick up their sleeve, namely what is called a secure or encrypted tunnel. In short, this means that the VPN creates an encrypted connection between your devices and the VPN server.

As a result, anyone who wants to see what you’re doing, which in this case could mean the site or your ISP, will be met with a variety of random gibberish, the telltale sign of an encrypted connection. It is one of the reasons why the use of VPN is recommended in cases of Wi-Fi hijacking.

VPN Marketing Claims

VPNs are the best possible way to protect yourself from anyone using your IP address to track you. This generally includes any type of surveillance, whether by governments or corporations, as well as bypassing censorship. We have an article on all things you should use a VPN for .

However, since we are dealing with issues that most people are not familiar with, it is very easy for VPN providers to claim all kinds of benefits for VPN use in an attempt to attract more customers. These attempts can range from the relatively innocent to the downright nasty.

A good example of the latter can be found in our article on Unreliable VPNs Note: RusVPN uses the box below on their site to scare people into signing up for the service. However, armed with the knowledge we outlined above, you’ll quickly realize that most of these claims are complete nonsense: a VPN can’t thwart hackers looking for information like your bank account information or your address. It just doesn’t work that way.

RusVPN infographic

However, this is just one particularly egregious example. Many of the best VPNs they are guilty of at least exaggerating what their product can do.

NordVPN, for example, has a habit of over-promising in its “double VPN” , while ExpressVPN claims that being based in the British Virgin Islands will keep you safe from government orders; however, it will not, as we explain in our article on what VPNs share with law enforcement .

How you are vulnerable, even with a VPN

As useful as VPNs are, they are simply not a cybersecurity one-stop shop. While we don’t want to be alarmists, the sheer variety and number of threats on the Internet simply cannot be contained by one type of software. While VPNs will make sure your IP can’t be traced, at least the good ones will, anything that tracks you using other means won’t be put off by a VPN.

This includes the obvious, like trust scams. These include old favorites like the Nigerian prince or emails telling you the IRS is after you and that you must pay a fine quickly with gift cards; examples abound. VPNs generally do not stop viruses and other malicious programs, nor keyloggers from keys . Think of it this way: if the threat isn’t interested in where you are, a VPN probably won’t help.

tracking issues

That said, even when it comes to tracking, VPNs are not bulletproof. When a site or organization is trying to find out who you are, usually so they can tailor ads to your browsing habits, the IP address is just one of many data points used for that. Much more valuable is your general browsing history, which can be reconstructed even when using a VPN.

The first way is to track your online account usage from sites like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. You may not realize it, but as long as you don’t explicitly log out of these, they will follow you as you browse and suck up all that sweet, sweet data that makes these companies all their money.

The easiest way to prevent this type of data collection is simply not to sign up for any of these accounts. Since that may not be possible for everyone, the best thing to do is turn on incognito mode whenever you’re browsing, or at least when you don’t want to be tracked. Incognito mode logs you out of all your accounts, preventing data collection.

However, technology has advanced enough that even by using a VPN and logging out of social media accounts, you can be reliably tracked using something called browser fingerprinting . Using this technique, sites can create an accurate profile of who you are simply by analyzing small telltale signs like the device you’re using and your browsing habits.

In the end it doesn’t matter how good is your vpn and your other precautions, you’ll have to agree to some kind of follow-up. The only real way to avoid it is to not go online at all, no matter what the security companies tell you.

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