A shadowy figure using a smartphone.
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VPNs are a big business worth billions of dollars a year. With so much money up for grabs, it’s no surprise that many VPN providers just aren’t trustworthy. So how do you choose a good, trustworthy VPN? Here are some telltale signs to watch out for before opening your wallet.

Reviews and Recommendations

One tried and tested way to find out whether or not a VPN is worth your time and money is to go by internet reviews or the recommendations of people you trust. For example, we have a guide to choosing the best VPN with examples of services that we like, as do many other sites. Not all sites are equally trustworthy, however, with at least one example of a review site owning a VPN service and giving it a high rating.

As such, we recommend that you exercise caution when going off reviews and keep an eye out for a few things. For one, many reviews will parrot marketing copy, so when you see too many similarities between a VPN provider’s site and a review, you can assume that something fishy is going on. Also, if a claim in a review sounds too good to be true, or the tone seems too “salesy,” there’s a good chance that the review is slanted.

RELATED: How to Choose the Best VPN Service for Your Needs

Presentation

Another thing you should look out for when shopping for a VPN is the way that the service presents itself. While many providers—from market leaders like NordVPN and ExpressVPN on down—have a habit of making slightly exaggerated claims about how private VPNs are, some go beyond that and then a little further.

One example of that is X-VPN, which claims to have 50 million users on its website. However, a quick look at the download page on the Google Play Store shows that it’s been installed over 10 million times. As Google’s bracket runs until 50 million, we highly doubt that X-VPN really has that many subscribers. VPNs are pretty popular apps, but they’re not quite that much in demand.

Claim from X-VPN site

This is just a bit of marketing hyperbole, but some services go further than that, using outright scare tactics to get you to sign up. One example of this is RusVPN, which hits a few red flags. First up is a very oddly constructed testimonial by an American man named Brian. This isn’t how real people speak.

Testimonial from RusVPN

Dicey testimonials are part and parcel of the modern internet, of course, but scroll a little further and you’ll see this:

Infographic from RusVPN

In our case, the above is nonsense, as we connected to a Dutch server using another, better VPN—it’s a shame that RusVPN didn’t catch that—and we’re also using a Linux machine, not Windows.

As for the threatening black block on the right with the shadowy figure lurking above it, most information (like bank accounts and credit card information) is transmitted over connections using HTTPS, and passwords are hashed (made unreadable) before being sent. Having a VPN switched on doesn’t make sending any of this information any safer.

There are plenty of reasons to use a VPN, but RusVPN is guilty of some blatant false advertising by claiming that your passwords and credit card numbers are up for grabs if you don’t use one. Sadly enough, there are plenty of other providers doing much the same.

Language Errors

Another minor sign that a service may not be the best fit is poor use of language. While we understand that not everybody speaks English natively, having more than a handful of spelling or grammar issues on a site is a clear sign that the service in question isn’t too keen on details. A professional company will have professional editors for its website. As details are pretty important when it comes to running a VPN, this is a red flag, albeit a small one.

RELATED: What Is a VPN, and Why Would I Need One?

Be Wary of Free

Another huge advertising ploy is offering a free VPN service. As a general rule, you don’t want to sign up for most free VPNs. Too many of them have been caught selling data to third parties, and the risk that some unknown VPN provider is doing the same is just too big. You get what you pay for, and privacy is just too important to gamble with.

That being said, there are some decent VPN services that offer a free plan alongside their regular offering, usually as a way for you to get to know the service a little before deciding to pay. Among the best are Windscribe and TunnelBear, which both offer limited service for free and have no record of bad practices.

Checking the Record

Speaking of which, one thing that you may want to do before signing on to a service is to perform a web search of its name, maybe even adding extra keywords like “reputation,” “breach,” or “selling data.” Although past performance isn’t always an accurate way of judging how a service is now, it can give you an indication of what the company is like.

For example, Avast, which offers both VPNs as well as other consumer security solutions, was discovered to be selling anonymized customer data through its subsidiary Jumpshot. Though Jumpshot has been shuttered since the revelations and the data sold was from the company’s antivirus suite, it’s concerning.

Another example: Free VPN Hola may hijack your computer to join a botnet and often won’t work particularly well to boot.

Of course, some companies recover from their shady pasts: IPVanish made some missteps a few years ago, as did PureVPN, but both providers seem to have learned from their mistakes and have reworked their privacy policies, fixing any issues that needed it. Although their history may keep them from getting a rousing recommendation, it shouldn’t keep you from giving them a try.

Bad Policy

One last thing to always check before making a purchase decision is the privacy policy of the VPN that you’re looking at. Although you can’t always depend on what’s said—too many VPNs are headquartered in out-of-the-way countries to make their claims enforceable—it is a good way to check whether the service has paid attention to detail.

For one thing, you want to make sure that you’re dealing with a no-log VPN, one that erases, or at least, doesn’t store the records of your use. Besides that, it’s also important to check that the site—which you usually use to download the client and to submit support tickets—does not store cookies, and that it won’t keep track of your data in any other way. The ExpressVPN privacy policy is one example of a document that clearly lays out its terms and checks off all major concerns.

Making the Right Decision

Picking a VPN isn’t like picking out furniture: The wrong decision can cost you. With the above five things in mind, though, you should be able to make a more informed decision. If you’re still not sure where to begin, we recommend getting ExpressVPN as a starting point. Many of us here at How-To Geek have used it for years, and we find the service reliable, fast, and trustworthy.

Our Favorite VPN

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is our top VPN pick thanks to features like its large number of servers, speed, and no-logging policy. Many of us at How-To Geek have trusted and used it for years.

Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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