Does a VPN protect you from hackers?

8 mins

As 2023 draws to a close, it’s important to not only reflect on our digital practices but also to prepare for the future. Staying safe online is more than just a good habit; it’s a necessity. With hackers constantly finding new ways to access personal data, it’s important to understand how tools like VPNs contribute to your online security. While a VPN isn’t a magic solution to blocking all attacks, it does offer significant protection in certain areas. 

Read on to find out the key ways a VPN can help shield your information from common hacking techniques, both in these final weeks of 2023 and as we step into 2024 and beyond.

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5 ways a VPN protects your personal data
How a VPN keeps you safe at home and on public Wi-Fi
5 popular hacks that a VPN can shield you from
What a VPN can’t protect you from
7 additional ways protect yourself against hackers

5 ways a VPN protects your personal data

Ever wondered how a VPN helps keep your digital life secure? Here’s a breakdown of the key features that make VPNs like ExpressVPN a smart choice for enhancing your online security:

1. Encryption

At the heart of a VPN’s defense mechanism is encryption. ExpressVPN uses AES-256 encryption to scramble your data. This encryption is so strong that it would take hundreds of years to crack, keeping your sensitive information like credit card details or login credentials safe from cybercriminals as they’re transmitted over the internet.

ExpressVPN has also implemented post-quantum protections, positioning itself as a pioneer in the VPN industry. This update, part of their Lightway protocol, employs advanced encryption methods chosen by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to combat threats posed by quantum computing advancements.

2. IP masking

A VPN hides your real IP address, replacing it with one from its server network. This is essential for online anonymity, making it difficult for hackers and advertisers who rely on this information to track your activities or determine your location. Without your real IP address, it becomes harder for them to target you with specific cyber attacks—specifically those who may target the router you’re using to connect to the internet.

3. Ad blocker feature

Premium VPNs often include ad blockers, like those available in ExpressVPN’s Android, iOS, and Windows apps, as well as on devices like the Aircove router. Ad blockers, coupled with features such as Threat Manager, do more than just stop ads; they also block trackers used by third parties. This helps prevent malicious websites from capturing your personal information and reduces the risk of accidentally interacting with dangerous ads or downloading malware, which are typical strategies used by hackers.

4. Killswitch

A killswitch is an important safety feature. For instance, if your VPN connection drops, ExpressVPN’s killswitch will cut off your internet connection to prevent your IP address or data from being exposed. This ensures your online activities remain private, even in the case of connection issues.

5. Secure VPN protocols

VPNs use various protocols to ensure the secure transmission of your data. For instance, ExpressVPN’s Lightway protocol is designed for speed and security, incorporating advanced cryptography. Other common protocols used by VPNs are Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), OpenVPN (TCP/UDP), Internet Key Exchange Version 2 (IKEv2), and Wireguard. 

How a VPN keeps you safe at home and on public Wi-Fi

A VPN helps enhance your online security, whether you’re connected to your home network or using public Wi-Fi. By encrypting your internet traffic and masking your IP address, it offers a robust shield against various cyber threats, ensuring your online activities remain private and secure.

At homeOn public Wi-Fi
Secure smart device connections: With the increasing number of smart devices at home, a VPN helps secure the internet connection of these devices, reducing the risk of IoT attacks.Protection on unsecured networks: Public Wi-Fi networks are often unsecured, making them hotspots for cybercriminals. A VPN encrypts your data, keeping it safe from eavesdroppers and hackers.
Enhanced privacy from ISPs: At home, your ISP can track your browsing history. A VPN encrypts your internet traffic, preventing ISPs from monitoring your online activities.Safe online transactions: When performing transactions like online shopping or banking on public Wi-Fi, a VPN ensures that your sensitive financial information is encrypted and secure.
Protection for the whole family: While safeguarding your own online activity, you’ll also want to have the peace of mind that your loved ones are browsing with privacy. One ExpressVPN subscription covers 8 devices and includes parental controls to block explicit content.
Mitigate the risks of man-in-the-middle attacks: Public Wi-Fi is notorious for man-in-the-middle attacks (more on this below). A VPN creates a secure tunnel for your data, preventing hackers from intercepting and manipulating your online communications.
Bypass location restrictions: At home, a VPN gives you the tools you need to access a wider range of content from streaming services.Avoid network restrictions and censorship: On public Wi-Fi, especially in places with strict internet censorship, a VPN helps bypass network restrictions, allowing free access to internet content.

4 popular hacks that a VPN can shield you from

When someone says that a VPN protects you from hackers, they’re really referring to specific methods of cyberattack. Here’s a rundown of the most common hacks that certain groups of cybercriminals use in 2024, and how a VPN, including features from providers like ExpressVPN, works to protect you:

1. Man-in-the-middle attacks

This is where hackers insert themselves into your digital communications to intercept or alter the data being exchanged. While HTTPS secures website communications, VPNs offer additional protection by encrypting all internet traffic. This broader encryption shields against cookie theft and session hijacking, even on unsecure networks, covering areas where HTTPS might have limitations.

2. DDoS attacks

Short for Distributed Denial of Service, these attacks flood your network with overwhelming amounts of useless data, aimed at overloading and crashing your systems. A VPN helps by hiding your real IP address, making it difficult for attackers to locate and target your network with these data floods.

3. Fake WAP

This is when cybercriminals set up counterfeit Wi-Fi networks to capture unsuspecting users’ data. A VPN secures your connection with encryption, safeguarding your data even if you connect to a deceptive WAP.

4. DNS spoofing

Hackers can manipulate DNS servers to redirect you to fraudulent websites. A quality VPN ensures your DNS queries are securely routed, preventing you from being misdirected to these spoofed sites.

What a VPN can’t protect you from

While VPNs excel in encrypting data in transit and masking IP addresses, providing a significant level of security against many cyber threats, there are areas where their protective reach is limited:

  • Direct device access: If a hacker gains direct access to your device, either physically or through malware, a VPN can’t defend against this. Once a device is compromised, the data within can be accessed regardless of VPN protection.
  • Human error: No technology can completely safeguard against human mistakes. Clicks on malicious links (such as through phishing) or disabling security features can expose you to risks that a VPN can’t mitigate.
  • Malware: While VPNs like ExpressVPN can reduce the risk of malware with its ad blocker by preventing malicious ads from displaying, they can’t prevent malware installation if a user inadvertently downloads it. Malware that makes its way onto your device can operate independently of the VPN’s encryption.
  • Phishing attempts: Phishing attacks, often executed through deceptive emails, aim to trick users into revealing sensitive information. VPNs cannot stop users from falling prey to phishing emails.
  • Destination-site vulnerabilities: A VPN secures your data en route to its destination, but it does not protect the data once it arrives at the server. If the server is compromised or the data unencrypted, that data is at risk irrespective of the encryption provided during transit.

7 additional ways protect to yourself against hackers

While VPNs offer strong protection in many areas, they are just one piece of the cybersecurity puzzle. To enhance your digital defense against hackers, you should employ a multi-layered approach. Here are some key strategies to complement your VPN usage:

1. Keep Your software updated

Regular updates are vital for maintaining the security of your software. These updates often include patches for newly discovered security vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit.

2. Enable a firewall

A firewall acts as a barrier between your devices and the internet, monitoring incoming and outgoing traffic. It helps block unauthorized access and malicious software, providing an additional layer of security. If possible, enable a firewall on your device as well as your home router.

3. Use antivirus software

Antivirus programs help detect and remove malware from your devices. Keep it running and updated to protect against the latest threats.

4. Secure your router

Your router is the gateway to your home network. Change the default username and password, use strong encryption (like WPA3), and regularly update the firmware to prevent unauthorized access. Many routers can be configured to block external internet access, thereby preventing anyone outside your home from reaching your router’s IP address.

5. Be careful on public Wi-Fi

Avoid accessing sensitive information like bank accounts, and always verify the network’s legitimacy before connecting—especially if you aren’t using a VPN.

6. Be careful what you download

Only download software and files from trusted sources. Unverified downloads can be a way for malware to infiltrate your system.

7. Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication (2FA)

Strong, unique passwords for each account, coupled with the added security of 2FA, significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access to your accounts. Where possible, make use of hardware-based 2FA or app-based MFA instead of SMSes.

FAQ: How a VPN protects you from hackers

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