Cybercriminals were quick to take advantage of the disruption to everyday life caused by the worldwide Covid pandemic. Over the last couple of years or so they have launched more cyberattacks and online scams than ever, which is why many users have started using a VPN to protect themselves online.
A VPN, or virtual private network, is an increasingly popular tool that secures your internet connection and allows you to browse the web anonymously. This is because a VPN allows you to use a different IP address than the one provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) online. Additionally, by changing server locations while connected to a VPN, you can make it appear as if you're in a different state or even in a different country.
While many users stay connected to their VPN at all times for additional security online, this can also have negative effects as illustrated by this report from New York's WHEC.
When not to use a VPN
New York State has long been trying to crack down on scammers attempting to collect unemployment benefits they are not entitled to. Unemployment insurance fraud is a very serious matter and unfortunately several innocent New Yorkers are now unable to receive their benefits after logging on to the website of the state's Department of Labor (DOL) while connected to a VPN.
WHEC spoke with Elena Rodriguez who tried to re-certify her benefits online but ended up having her payments stopped due to the fact that DOL thought she was out of the country. Rodriguez provided more details on the situation, saying:
“That evening I got something that said 'we see that you are in Romania,' I was like wait what are you talking about… and then I realized my VPN was on. I just had the VPN for extra security because I heard cyber threats are more increased during this time, so I thought I was being proactive and smart and doing all this. Not for one second did I think it might show that I am not in the country.”
Using a VPN while working from home is an additional step people can take to secure their connections and protect their privacy but in this case, it ended up doing more harm than good. While Rodriguez should have turned her VPN off when visiting NYSDOL's website, she wouldn't have run into any issues if she had been connected to a server in New York as opposed to one in Romania. As a general rule of thumb, you will usually see better speeds and less latency when connecting to a VPN server closer to your actual location than to one farther away or in a different country.
Other New Yorkers have run into this problem over the last couple of years as well, which is why a spokesperson for NYSDOL explained in a statement that users should disable their VPN when visiting its site, saying:
“During this crisis, we have disrupted thousands of fraudulent unemployment claims -- and one of our best tools is flagging claims that appear to originate out of the United States for further review. We continue to remind New Yorkers using VPNs or other 'internet anonymizer' systems to disable those services before applying for benefits or submitting weekly certifications."
Pick the right VPN
Of course, as well as taking this advice, it’s also vital to ensure that you sign up for a decent VPN in the first place. If you’re subscribed to a reputable package, you’ll invariably find it much easier to dip in and out of VPN connectivity, as and when it suits you. The good quality VPNs that are out there are also much more straightforward to set up and configure. If you’re migrating from a free package, you’ll probably find the difference is dramatic.
In terms of choosing the right VPN package, your options are many and varied. As always, it’s a good idea to stick with the more well-known names. They have a proven track record and can offer a lot more for the money. In that respect, head for the likes of ExpressVPN, NordVPN or Surfshark to name but three of the major players in the VPN marketplace.
Selecting the software of your choice is pretty straightforward too, although it’s really worth having a think about what you need your VPN for, prior to signing up for a subscription. This really revolves around what you spend most of your time doing, such as streaming content, or gaming. You may just want to keep yourself safe while you’re online, along with covering your tracks and thereby improving your online security profile.
Core VPN requirements
There are some key issues worth thinking about when you’re thinking about signing up for a VPN. You’ll want to consider a provider with lots of locations that can help you connect to platforms using a variety of devices. You’ll also want to select one that provides more than one connection if you’ve got a household where there are multiple devices. Similarly, anyone with a penchant for streaming movies or TV will want to get a VPN that can unblock access to the likes of Netflix or iPlayer.
Next up, take a look at the support options that come with the VPN packages you’re considering. All the reputable, bigger names have support services to back up the software itself. Even if you’re a seasoned VPN user there can be the occasional technical issue to contend with. Knowing that your VPN provider has your back when, or if, the glitch occurs can offer valuable piece of mind.
Finally, while everyone is looking for value these days, it’s always worth comparing different VPNs for their price versus features line-up. If you’re keen to switch on and want everything to just work it’s always prudent to spend a little more on your VPN, just as it is with anything else. Pick the right package though and you’ll also have the reassurance of that customer support, just in case getting connected doesn’t turn out to be quite as straightforward as you’d hoped for.
Are you a pro? Subscribe to our newsletter
Sign up to the TechRadar Pro newsletter to get all the top news, opinion, features and guidance your business needs to succeed!
After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.