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How to use a VPN on a public network

How to use a VPN on a public network

Public Wi-Fi networks at coffee shops, fast food chains and airports can be lifesavers when you're in a pinch. You can check social media sites and email, browse the internet, shop and communicate online without putting a dent in your cellular data plan. Use this free app to find Wi-Fi anywhere you go.

Unfortunately, if an opportunistic hacker is on the same network, it gives them a good chance of snooping on what you're doing or even taking over your accounts.

Aside from hackers, the government and internet service providers can also monitor your connection to see where you go, and, if they want, what you do. If you aren't a fan of that, and few people are, there is a way you can keep these parties out of your business.

If you're on public Wi-Fi, consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to secure and encrypt your connection.

What is a VPN?

In the business world, VPNs let remote off-site employees create an encrypted connection with their company network so they can work safely.

Windows and Mac both have VPN features built in for this purpose. However, for the average home user or traveler, these aren't very helpful because you need a network to connect to. That's where a third-party VPN service comes in handy.

A VPN service lets you create an encrypted connection with one of its servers, and you use that server to browse the internet. The connection is encrypted through the server, so the VPN can't see your traffic either. OK, it's a bit more complicated than that behind the scenes, but that's the result.

To start, you need to choose a program or service to use. There are dozens that offer a variety of security features, privacy options, server locations and other considerations.

Note: If you're searching for VPNs, you'll see VPN services and "proxy" services. A proxy service can disguise your computer's identity, but it doesn't necessarily encrypt your connection. Always go with a VPN for security.

For the average user, it's important to make sure the service has U.S.-based servers, know how much bandwidth you can use per session or month, and to know that it doesn't keep logs of your activity. Paid services will require some personal information and payment information, naturally, but you can find one that minimizes what it needs to know.

Some services will accept prepaid cards and alternative payments that are more difficult to trace back to you. However, even if you give the service your information, as long as it doesn't keep logs of what you do with the service, then it doesn't matter so much.

For PCs, Macs and Android smartphones and tablets, CyberGhost is a popular free option that has strong encryption, unlimited bandwidth and doesn't store logs. If you decide on a paid plan, there's an Apple app as well, plus you get access to more servers around the world.

Hotspot Shield VPN is a good app for Apple and Android gadgets and has more than 300 million downloads. You get to choose your server location, and it also blocks viruses and phishing attempts before they get to your gadget. There are also Windows and Mac versions; however, the free software has ads.

Exclusively available for Apple MacOS and iOS is another VPN service called Cloak. With this application, just mark certain networks as "trusted" and it will automatically secure your connection whenever you're not in one of them. Cloak's service is not free; it offers two monthly subscriptions: a 5 GB mini plan for $2.99 and an unlimited data plan for $9.99. You can try it out for free for 14 days.

Using a VPN
Once you've installed your VPN of choice, fire it up and let it establish a connection. You can then browse the internet like you always do. The traffic will flow to your computer, tablet or smartphone over the encrypted connection from the VPN's server.

This means any unencrypted sites you visit will be safe from prying eyes and encrypted sites will basically have double encryption. As a side bonus, if you're at home, your internet service provider will no longer be able to see what sites you're visiting. It will only see your connection to the VPN.

The sites you're visiting also won't know where you're coming from. They'll just see the connection from the VPN. That means the government will have a harder time tracking what you're doing as well.

Disclaimer: While the government will have a harder time seeing your activity, it isn't impossible that it can find out what you're doing. So, keep what you're doing legal.

I strongly recommend using a VPN when you're on public Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi makes it easy for hackers on the same network to snoop on what you're doing. The VPN encryption should stop them.

Even then, you shouldn't do anything too sensitive on public Wi-Fi, like online banking. Save that for home on your secure Wi-Fi network, or use a cellular connection on the go. Even with cellular, you might want to use a VPN in case you wander in range of a government StingRay. Learn what StingRays are and why you want to avoid them.

More things to know
Using a VPN is a good way to increase your security, but it does have a cost. While most VPN services claim otherwise, it can slow down your connection. That's because your traffic is making more stops between you and the site you're using. If you find that your browsing is sluggish, you can turn off the VPN while using sites that aren't critical.

You could run into obstacles if your VPN hooks you up with a server in another country. Some online activities, like streaming online videos, are often region locked. So if you find YouTube, Netflix or another site refusing to play videos because it says you aren't in the U.S., you'll need to adjust your VPN settings or find one with more U.S.-based servers.

Similarly, some sites that you use regularly might say they don't recognize you. You might need to go through security procedures to prove you are who you say you are before you can log in.

While the VPN will hide your surfing from your ISP and the sites you're visiting, your computer, smartphone or tablet are still recording your browsing history. If you don't want that recorded, you'll need to browse in private or incognito mode. Learn how to activate that in your browser.

A VPN is just about the connection between you and a website. If you choose to store personal information on a website, it can still be lost in a data breach. So, as always, be conscious of what sites you choose to trust with your information.

While a VPN encrypts your connection between you and the VPN server, the connection between the VPN server and the site you're visiting isn't necessarily going to be secure. While the odds of a hacker breaking in at that point are minimal, it's still possible.

Always be sure to check your browser's address bar to make sure you see the "https://" before sending any sensitive information to a website. If a site doesn't offer an encrypted connection for sensitive information, then you probably don't want to be using it, VPN or not.

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