Finding the right VPN seems easy, at least in theory. Browse a few provider websites, compare key details like the number of locations and the price, and you can be signed up within minutes.
But beware: some providers will stretch the truth to breaking point in the claims they'll make about their service. What you seem to be promised on the website doesn't always match up with what you'll actually get.
Don't let this stop you shopping for VPN deals – there are plenty of good services around. But it's important to understand what's going on in terms of sales spin in some cases. To help out, we've listed seven particularly sneaky tricks you can look out for, and how you can avoid them. Good luck, and be careful out there.
- We’ve also got a guide on how to recognize a bad VPN
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1. Outdated server lists
A VPN's location list is one of its key selling points, and companies know that the higher the number of servers, locations and countries they can offer, the more interest they're going to attract.
Unfortunately, you can't always believe what you read. The totals you'll see on the website may be outdated, and won't always reflect what you'll get in the client. Sometimes this can work in your favor (maybe a firm has recently added more servers), but occasionally a VPN might no longer support a few locations, but ‘forget’ that they're still listed on the website.
An even sneakier, but less common trick, is to offer servers which support so few protocols that they only work with specific devices. You might find that although you've been promised an Australian server, for instance, it's not available on desktops.
It's difficult to detect this trick in advance, but you can at least check a service for its consistency. Look at any server, location and country totals on the front page of the website, and compare them to other places on the site (a server status page, a plan comparison table, a features page, maybe the store pages for any iOS and Android apps). Any differences in numbers you spot might be due to sloppiness more than malice, but that's still worth noting.
If you sign up for a VPN with a free trial anyway, don't assume the location list on the website matches what you'll get in real life. Take the time to scroll through the server list and confirm the service offers everything it has promised.
2. Misleading ‘no logging’ claims
Privacy is a top concern for many VPN users, so it's no surprise that providers attempt to reassure them with blanket ‘no logging’ claims.
A VPN firm might promise that there are ‘no logs kept of any kind, ever’ on the homepage. Sometimes you'll see additional claims that the company doesn’t log the sites you visit, and that it can’t see anything you're doing online. The core of this may well be true, but often you're not being told the whole story.
Many services keep session logs which might record the times you connect, maybe the bandwidth used, the incoming IP address, device details, or the outgoing IP address. That could leave a trail which allows any of your internet actions to be linked back to you, at least in theory (someone would need to get the legal right to examine the logs, first).
A few providers admit that they can use these logs or other techniques to identify anyone abusing the service, if they've received complaints.
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3. Dubious app store reviews
Mobile VPN apps often have very little information on their abilities, so you'll probably want to check out the ratings and reviews of other users. But beware: VPN providers know how important these can be, and the less honest will use a range of tricks to boost their scores.
For example, we've seen services which promise benefits such as extra bandwidth to users who give the app a five-star rating.
Other free apps are a little less blatant, but still try to steer you in the same direction. One recent example asked us if we'd like to remove a service limit, and when we tapped 'Yes', asked us for a rating. It's not compulsory and you don't have to give the app a top score, but many users will, and that's enough to skew the figures.
Our best advice is that you shouldn’t put any great weight on high app scores. If you're curious, though, take some time to scroll through previous reviews. If an app is begging or offering incentives for good reviews, a few users will probably mention that.
4. Not-so-special deals
Head off to most VPN pricing pages and you'll find plenty of ‘special deals’ which usually aren't special at all. For all the ‘50% off’ splashes, the flash deals or the ‘strictly limited’ offers – which sometimes require that you sign up within a few minutes to get the special price – many VPN provider's pricing schemes don't change much at all.
If you're wondering whether that deal really will expire tonight, enter the VPN website URL into archive.org and check what the prices were like a few months ago. The offer might not be as limited as the provider pretends.
Even when an apparent bargain appears, stop for a moment and think about it. VPNs occasionally offer lifetime subscriptions for amazing prices, which we've seen as low as $40 (£30) or so, but this isn't a sustainable business model. Unless it's a genuinely short-term offer from a well-known, big-name provider, we'd treat these offers as a warning more than an opportunity. That lifetime licence won't help you much if the provider goes bust a month or two later.
And if you're still struggling, then be sure to visit our cheap VPN guide, to discover the services that keep things affordable all year around.
5. Fake server status information
Every good VPN should display a list of its servers, but some companies go a little further, also including some kind of server load or health indicator. These figures almost always seem to show very low load figures, so presumably these organizations are hoping you'll be impressed by all the apparently spare capacity.
On the face of it, this seems like a good idea, but we're unsure how meaningful the figures really are. What are they actually measuring? How are they calculated? How up-to-date are they? No-one ever seems to explain.
And although we're not saying all, or even most of the pages are misleading, we've come across a few which have tried to fool users. One was a simple static HTML page which displayed the same low figures all the time, whenever you visited. A slightly smarter page seemed to use random values, although as usual they were all reassuringly low.
If you come across one of these pages, try forcing a refresh and look to see what, if anything, changes. Revisit the page over the course of a day to see if load increases at peak times, as you would expect. Also, enter the page URL at archive.org and again compare the values.
Whatever this tells you, look for some explanation of what these load or usage figures actually mean. If there isn't one, ignore them – they're just marketing.
6. Useless refunds
Many VPNs won't allow you to try before you buy, and instead ask you to pay upfront, but promise a refund if you're unhappy.
Occasionally a service will try to make this sound better by extending the refund over a long period. Around seven days is normal, but we've seen some providers offer 14 days, or even 30.
While this seems reasonable, there are sometimes sneaky catches which can make it difficult, or even impossible, to get your money back.
The worst will place strict limits on your service use. They might say you only qualify for a refund if you've used less than a small amount of bandwidth (sometimes just a few hundred megabytes), or have connected for only a small number of times. We've used up our entire refund allowance for some VPNs with a few minutes of testing.
Other services say you can only ask for your money back if the service hasn’t met ‘reasonable expectations’. Of course, the company gets to decide what's reasonable, and unless the VPN was a total disaster (i.e. you never successfully connected once) there's a chance the firm could refuse your request.
To avoid this, check the small print before you sign up. Sometimes there's a refund policy link, and otherwise, any details are often mentioned in the terms of service or in the FAQ. Restrictions in the small print won't always matter – a 2GB bandwidth limit gives you plenty of time for testing – but in general, the fewer refund conditions in place, the better.
7. Stolen small print
To find out more, browse the policy and look for a line which seems specific to the business. Here's a good example which describes a fine detail of how the VPN works: "<VPN_NAME> assigns a unique identifier to each User of the Service, but <VPN_NAME> does not tie these unique identifiers to the Personal Information of Users."
Now use Google to search for a chunk of this which doesn't include the company name, like "does not tie these unique identifiers to the Personal Information of Users", and look for any hits.
We regularly find text shows up on multiple VPN sites, and sometimes there are innocent explanations. Each VPN might be run by (or reselling) the same service, maybe. Or perhaps the current site wrote the original policy and everyone else copied it.
But if you're looking at some brand new app you've never heard about before, and it has copy-and-pasted key small print from one of the big VPN companies, then be careful. That suggests to us that the organization is creating a website to give you what you want to see, rather than tell you the truth, and that leaves us with a big question: what else on the VPN’s site might be fake?