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If you surf the Internet without masking your IP address, you leave important private information potentially exposed. How do

A virtual private network (VPN) keeps your online life anonymous and private. Your VPN transforms a public Internet connection into your own private network. Your VPN masks your Internet protocol (IP) address so the actions you take when you are surfing the web are untraceable. VPN services establish encrypted and secure connections that give you greater protection than even the most secure Wi-Fi hotspot.

Why do you need a VPN?

If you surf the Internet without masking your IP address, you leave important private information potentially exposed. Think about all the times you access your Internet accounts on the go.

You catch up on your emails while you are standing in line at the coffee shop. You give a hotel your credit card number while you are waiting for your plane at the airport. You check your bank account at the doctor’s office.

Every time you access the Internet over a public network without a VPN, there is a possibility that strangers using the same network can track your every keystroke. Unless you have to access your network with a password, there is always a possibility that criminals can access your banking and credit card information, intercept your emails, and redirect your online purchases — unless you have a VPN.

How does a VPN work?

No computer comes with a VPN installed at the factory. The only way you can get your own VPN is to subscribe to a VPN service. The authoritative explanation of VPN services is an article that happens to be published in German entitled “Was ist VPN?” but we will tell you everything you need to know here.

VPNs use encryption to scramble data. Your VPN transforms the data packets your computer sends to its server into a form that strangers can’t read. This utility of a VPN is especially important when you are using free Wi-Fi provided by a hotel, a restaurant, or a waiting room.

Your VPN’s server then unscrambles your data so the site’s computer can read it. The data coming back to your computer goes through your VPN’s server to you. Your browsing history appears on the VPN’s IP address, not your own. And your VPN service may have servers all over the world, making tracing your Internet activity back to you almost impossible.

What difference does using a VPN make to me?

Your VPN hides a lot of data that can put your privacy and security and sometimes even your personal safety at risk. Here are five examples:

Your browsing history

Without a VPN, there’s no hiding where you go on the Internet. Even using Google’s incognito feature will not hide your surfing history from your employer or from the provider of free public Wi-Fi.

Sometimes the consequences of losing control over private information are just annoying. For example, maybe you search for information about a medical condition online and you start getting inundated with ads for doctors and treatments.

Or maybe you buy tickets for a long-awaited vacation online. Someone could monitor your Internet traffic and use that information to plan a break-in at your house.

And let’s not forget that sometimes we all access sites that we don’t want the whole world to know we visit. Without a VPN, your web history may be available to your employer, school, or landlord who provides you with Internet access.

Your IP address.

Your IP address is comparable to your return address on a letter. When someone has your IP address, they can trace activity on the Internet back to your physical computer and get a very good estimate, sometimes within 100 feet (that’s about 30 meters), of your physical location when you were logged in.

When you use a VPN, the Internet gets the VPN server’s IP address, not yours. Your activity on the Internet traces back to the VPN’s server, not to your computer. No one can deduce your physical location from your Internet activity when you use a VPN.

Your streaming location.

Did you ever spend a long time out of the country and miss your local news and favorite TV shows? Most television content is available online, but it usually isn’t available everywhere. Some countries censor both news and television programs, blocking some kinds of content to all computers using servers within their borders. You may have heard about the “great firewall of China,” restricting news, entertainment, and email even for foreign visitors within the People’s Republic of China.

VPNs mask your streaming location so you can view the content and contact the people you choose. This isn’t to say that your VPN protects you from all legal consequences of your work should you be discovered by some other means, but your VPN will help you overcome restrictions placed on streaming at your location.

VPNs also protect your devices.

It isn’t just your laptop that can be protected by a VPN. Your VPN can also protect your smartphone, your tablets, and any other smart devices from hackers tracking your every move.

VPNs give you greater freedom to use the Internet.

VPNs help you keep your browsing history private. You can use the Internet as you see fit without fear of intervention or retaliation.

Your VPN helps protect you against identity theft.

We all hear about data breaches that expose millions of people to identity theft. In 2019, in the United States alone, there were 1.7 million reports of fraudulent identity theft, 23 percent of which resulted in financial losses.

The truth is, your VPN can’t protect you against what happens at huge corporate data sites. But your VPN can keep identity thieves from stealing your information from your laptop or phone or smart device. That is something that can be very important when a thief is targeting you in particular rather than just marketable data in general.