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What Is a Virtual Private Network and How Does it Work?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in PrivacyDecember 03, 2020

Nowadays, you can’t turn on the news without seeing a report of another big company caught by ransomware or becoming a victim of a data breach. One way that individuals are keeping their systems safe and protecting themselves against identity theft is through a VPN.

what is VPN

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and historically they were used by companies so you could connect to your employer when home or on the road and access networked files and resources. 

It’s critical these days to protect your online presence and activities. Hackers and cybercriminals are everywhere searching for weak spots in your network. One way to keep these criminals at bay is a VPN that adds an extra layer of security and helps to mask your identity behind a wall of linked servers. 

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN works by encrypting and securing the connection between two locations on the internet. For example, your computer is in one location, and you go online and connect to an e-tailer. Using a VPN, the entire connection is encrypted, and your IP address is hidden from hackers and anyone who has software that can identify you. Instead, your IP address is routed through a bunch of different servers, and the connection between you and whatever internet site you are on is invisible to prying eyes.

When you use public Wi-Fi (connect to the internet at your local coffee shop, for example), a hacker could easily intercept your online activities and steal bank account data and even login credentials. Using a VPN, they cannot intercept this connection and cannot even see what you are doing. 

Statistics show that only about 20% of U.S. citizens use a VPN when they go online. Most are unaware that their ISP has the ability to track everything they do online and may actually track and store that data. Due to WikiLeaks, most people are aware that the government has been known to spy on everyone’s online activities, which may be another concern. Every American has the right to complete privacy, and a VPN helps to give you that.

Because VPN services may bounce your IP address off a server in another location, some people in countries where content is blocked use a VPN to access these services. For example, some countries do not allow access to Netflix. In-country citizens use a VPN to appear as though they are in the U.S. so they can watch TV and movies. 

How to Choose the Right VPN on the Market?

Once you have decided to use a VPN to secure your online activities, it may seem confusing or overwhelming with so many options to choose from. If you are unsure of which VPN provider to pick, follow these suggestions.

  • Read online reviews to see what other users are saying about the VPN.
  • Compare apples to apples (what do you get for the price). Some are free, but most are paid, and they include helpful options and features you may want.
  • Depending on why you need one, look for those features most important to you. 
  • Be sure to keep an eye on any limitations (data/bandwidth) when shopping.
  • Contact customer support and gauge whether or not you think they back up their products well.
  • Read the company’s privacy policy. You don’t want to use a VPN that tracks or stores your online activities (out of the frying pan into the fire). 
  • See if you can test drive any of the VPN services to see how you like it before buying. Some may have trial periods.

The Best VPN Providers

To make your choice a bit easier, we have rounded up the top VPN providers so you can review those that consistently earn good reviews and offer a generous service for a fair price.

ExpressVPN - ExpressVPN is CNet’s top choice for a fast, secure VPN service. You get to try it for three months before purchasing and have access to 30,000 IP addresses and 3,000 servers in 160 locations. You can also connect five devices at the same time. They never collect or store any of your data.

NordVPN - NordVPN is PC Magazine Editor’s Choice for the best VPN combining a host of elegant features, a huge network of servers, and excellent security and privacy built-in. They never track you, and the service is easy to use but more pricey than other vendors. 

Surfshark - Although Surfshark comes with a steep price tag, it makes up for it with unlimited connections, a robust network, and some unique VPN features like multi-hop and split-tunneling tools. The app is easy to use and attractive, and speeds are fast. 

Regardless of which option you choose, you will be happy you did as your identity and online life stays private and intact. 

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