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Whether you’re working from home as a result of the coronavirus threat or just spending more time online, you may want to consider using a virtual private network, or VPN.

A VPN, which is software you typically download, routes all the data sent to and from your computer or smartphone through its own server. That keeps anyone watching the traffic from knowing which sites you’re visiting. It can help mask your identity and location from snoops, too.

And, typically, a VPN also encrypts, or scrambles, data, so if someone were to somehow intercept it, he or she wouldn’t be able to use it. Businesses usually install VPNs on the computers of employees who frequently work remotely. 

These services have always been especially important for anyone taking advantage of the free WiFi at an airport or a library. Those networks are risky because hackers can jump on the same network and intercept the information going to and from a computer in a so-called “man in the middle” attack. But VPNs are also useful for home use, especially if you have doubts about the security of your WiFi network.

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It can be tricky to pick a good VPN, security experts say. Consumer-grade VPNs often don’t offer the same level of protection as those designed for businesses. In fact, a few consumer VPNs even collect and sell consumer data for a profit.

“There’s no such thing as a free VPN,” says Kowsik Guruswamy, chief technology officer at Menlo Security. “They’re either sending ads back to you or tracking you.” 

Additionally, even the best VPN doesn’t stop malware, ransomware, phishing attacks, and other scams, says Richard Henderson, head of global threat intelligence at the cybersecurity firm Lastline. VPNs can be very useful, but they’re just one tool in the consumer’s effort to stay safe online, along with measures such as antivirus software, password managers, and a strong dose of caution.

So how does one go about safely choosing a VPN? Because it’s so tough to evaluate VPNs, the experts we talked to declined to recommend any specific products. But they did have some advice for people shopping around.

What to Look for in a VPN

Michael Covington, a vice president at the mobile security company Wandera, says his researchers have a handful of potentially suspicious VPN products for sale in both the Apple and Google app stores. Many come from largely unknown developers, and it’s unclear which countries the companies are based in or where their servers are hosted.

“One piece of advice: Know the seller and know the organization behind it, because you’re essentially handing your data over to them,” he says.

But doing that only goes so far. Case in point: Onavo, a free VPN owned by Facebook, was removed from Apple’s app store in 2018 after it was revealed that Facebook was using the app to collect information about other apps installed on users’ devices, data that could be used for audience analysis or marketing.

Guruswamy says consumers should make a point of combing through privacy policies and user agreements to get some idea of how the companies behind the products make their money. Some are “blatantly obvious” and state that they sell consumer data, he says.

“It behooves the consumer to look into a little more than just functionality,” he says. “You need to find out what you’re giving away.”

Here’s one more tip: Cybersecurity experts recommend that you choose a VPN that is always on, or starts up with just a click, rather than a one that requires you to enter log-in credentials each time you want to go online. 

Tips for Using Public WiFi

Think all public WiFi is safe? Think again. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Maria Rerecich explains to host Jack Rico how hackers can use rogue networks to steal your personal information.