Is a VPN Enough To Keep You Safe From Hackers?
Alex Cartlon was rushing for her flight when she logged in to what she thought was Sydney Airport’s Wi-Fi network so that she could access her online banking account. But in reality, Alex had connected to an “Evil Twin” network — a fake Wi-Fi network posing as a legitimate one but controlled by hackers [*].
When she entered her credit card details, the scammers saw everything. This wouldn’t have been the case if Alex had been using a virtual private network (VPN).
While 88% of Americans say they know what VPNs are and their purpose, only 39% say they use one when going online for work and personal use.
For many people this comes down to one big question: Does a VPN protect you from hackers?
The answer? Not always.
In this guide, we’ll explain how a VPN can protect you from hackers, why you’re still vulnerable to online threats even with a VPN installed, and what you can do to keep yourself safe online.
How Does a VPN Protect You From Hackers?
Hackers are constantly looking for private data to exploit — including personal information, account login credentials, financial data, or even your browsing history. They have numerous ways of obtaining this information, from setting up fake public Wi-Fi networks to intercepting your internet traffic.
A VPN protects your data from hackers by encrypting it before it leaves your device. If hackers intercept your internet activity while you’re using a VPN, they will only receive a meaningless stream of numbers and letters — but nothing that they can use to hack your accounts or steal your identity.
Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how a VPN works:
- When you connect to your VPN, your data enters a secure “tunnel.” Instead of sending data directly to your internet service provider (ISP), your VPN provider sends the data along a secure path.
- Any data that you transmit through the tunnel is encrypted. VPNs use algorithms to change the data you send into random strings of letters and numbers (AES-256 and AES-128 are the most common). No one can use this data without a special decryption key.
- Your VPN provider decrypts your signal and sends it to your destination. VPN providers relay your traffic to the websites and services to which you wish to connect. Those web servers see the connection coming from the VPN server – not your device.
- When you receive data from the internet, the process works in reverse. Any data sent to you over the internet passes through the VPN’s encrypted tunnel. This ensures secure, two-way communication.
- Your browsing history gets deleted after your session ends. Many VPNs have privacy-oriented policies — like deleting user browsing histories and refusing to store logs of users’ online activities. No-logs VPNs help keep users anonymous.
- Some VPNs offer security features. Many VPN service providers offer a “kill switch” feature that disables the internet connection if the VPN stops working. This prevents you from accidentally losing protection without knowing it.
7 Ways a VPN Can Protect You Against Hackers
- Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks
- Fake Wi-Fi hotspots
- Remote hacking
- Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks
- Session hijacking
- Cross-site scripting
- Digital footprint leaks
VPNs can protect you from numerous types of cyberattacks. Here are just a few of the most common cyber threats that a VPN can help prevent:
1. Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks
Man-in-the-middle attacks occur when hackers insert themselves between your device and the site, app, or web service that you’re trying to access. This allows them to intercept, eavesdrop, or even interject themselves into your online activities.
For example, if you enter your credit card details on a shopping site during a MitM attack, scammers will be able to steal your credentials and use your card number for fraudulent purchases.
How a VPN protects you against man-in-the-middle attacks: With your data encrypted through a VPN, hackers won’t be able to view your personal information — they will only see a string of encrypted data.
2. Fake Wi-Fi hotspots
Hackers often set up fake Wi-Fi hotspots in places where you’d expect to access an internet connection — such as in airports, hotels, and cafes. To trick you into connecting, they give names to these networks that seem legitimate and familiar (such as the hotel’s name), and leave them open so that anyone can access them. But if you use one of these fake networks, you risk your data being stolen.
How a VPN protects you against fake Wi-Fi hotspots: A secure VPN encrypts your data — even if you’re connected to a fake Wi-Fi network.
💡 Related: The Dangers of Public Wi-Fi (and How To Stay Safe) →
3. Remote hacking
Hackers attempt to gain remote access to your device, which gives them full control over your files and data. There are several ways that remote hackers compromise devices. One method tricks your device into accepting fake Domain Name System (DNS) traffic. Other scams rely on scanning your device for security misconfigurations that hackers can exploit.
How a VPN protects you from remote hacking: Because VPN traffic is anonymized, anyone who tries to identify your device by its hardware will receive the VPN server’s device data instead. This makes it much harder for hackers to scan your devices and find security vulnerabilities to exploit.
4. Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks
DDoS cyberattacks temporarily force devices offline by flooding them with frivolous requests from fleets of compromised devices called botnets.
Anyone who knows your IP address can target you with a DDoS attack. This will force you offline until the attack ends. Hackers may use DDoS attacks in combination with other attack techniques, reducing your ability to respond while they steal your data or impersonate you.
How a VPN protects you against DDoS attacks: When you’re using a VPN, your real IP address is hidden. It’s part of the encrypted data to which only the VPN provider has access. If someone tries to target you with a DDoS attack, the VPN provider will simply switch your session to a new server.
💡 Related: The 21 Latest Emerging Cyber Threats to Avoid →
5. Session hijacking
Session hijacking is a technical cyberattack that occurs when hackers intrude on an active session in which you’re engaged and impersonate you. For example, if you log in to your bank account over an unsecured internet connection, a hacker may hijack that session, kick you out, and continue the session pretending to be you.
How a VPN protects you against session hijacking attacks: Many session hijacking attack techniques rely on hackers knowing your IP address. The best VPNs mask your IP address and hide the details of your active sessions, making it very difficult for hackers to hijack an active session.
6. Cross-site scripting
Hackers use a technique called cross-site scripting to target sensitive data as it’s being entered on a compromised website. For example, they could infiltrate a credit card payment page on which you’re entering your data — and steal it before it’s protected by the organization’s firewalls.
How a VPN protects you against cross-site scripting: Your VPN creates a secure tunnel between your device and the websites to which you send sensitive data. Hackers who intercept this data looking for your credit card information will only see encrypted data that they can’t access without a key.
💡 Related: 14 Ways Scammers Can Steal Your Credit Card Numbers →
7. Digital footprint leaks
Your digital footprint includes all available information about you online — such as the websites you visit, the public content you post, and much more. Some of this data is only available to data brokers who monitor the internet usage of millions of people at a time.
Once they obtain your digital footprint profile, data brokers may sell that information to third-party advertisers or even professional scammers. This gives them valuable information they can use to target you with ads, including malicious spyware ads.
How a VPN protects you against digital footprint leaks: When you browse the internet with a VPN, your activities are anonymized. The VPN service doesn’t tell data brokers who you are, what device you’re using, or from where you are logging in. This prevents them from harvesting or selling that data to third parties.
What Will a VPN Not Protect You From?
VPNs do not protect you against every possible threat. VPN users are still exposed to some risks, including:
- Bad VPN vendors. Not all VPN vendors follow the rules. Some free VPN apps are actually cybercriminals tricking users into downloading malware and spyware. Others abuse user bandwidth to commit other types of fraud. Always stick to reputable VPN providers that you know and trust.
- Human error. VPNs can’t prevent you from sending sensitive data to hackers through chat, email, or any other media channel. If you accidentally expose this data online, using a VPN won’t change the outcome one way or another.
- Malicious links. VPN providers generally do not offer point-of-click protection to users. If you click on a malicious link in an email or pop-up, or accidentally download malicious software, these threats can execute attacks whether you’re using a VPN or not.
- Malware and other viruses. Most VPN providers allow users to download files through their services. They generally do not scan these downloads or try to filter them in any way. That means that if you download malware from a compromised website, it will run on your device even with an active VPN connection.
- Phishing emails. A VPN can’t stop scammers from sending phishing emails to your email provider. So it’s up to you to recognize the signs of a scam, and steer clear.
- Fake websites. Someone can trick you into navigating to a spoofed website whether you’re using a VPN or not. Any data you enter on a fake website (like your login credentials) won’t be protected by your VPN.
- SMS scams. Your phone doesn’t use the internet to send and receive SMS messages. If scammers know your phone number, connecting to the internet through a VPN won’t reduce your risk of falling prey to SMS scams.
- Hackers who steal encryption keys. VPN security relies on the VPN provider’s ability to keep encryption keys secret. If hackers breach the VPN provider and steal the secret keys, they will be able to monitor and intercept user sessions.
The bottom line: A VPN plays an important role in your overall cybersecurity setup — but it’s not enough to shield you against hackers.
Modern all-in-one providers like Aura offer tools that protect you against hackers and scammers from all angles — including a VPN, antivirus software, a password manager, AI-powered scam protection, identity theft protection, fraud alerts, and more.
Do you need antivirus if you have a VPN?
The short answer is: yes.
Even the best VPN encryption can’t prevent you from downloading and opening malicious files. Antivirus software offers a layer of defense against some of the worst cyberthreats that VPNs alone can’t combat.
The good news is that Aura’s all-in-one digital security solution provides all of the tools you need — at an even lower cost than premium VPN services. For example, you can use this special link to get 60% off Aura — making it half the price of a monthly subscription to services such as NordVPN, SurfShark, and others.
How To Stay Safe Online (and Avoid Hackers)
A reliable VPN is an important security tool, but it isn’t a complete fix for digital safety.
Adopting a strong, multi-layered approach to digital security is the best way to safeguard your data from scammers and cybercriminals.
Here are some of the things you should do in addition to using a VPN when accessing the internet:
- Use unique passwords and a password manager. A secure password manager stores all of your credentials under a master password. This allows you to create unique, strong passwords for all of your accounts. The password manager included with every Aura plan even provides early warning if one of your accounts gets breached.
- Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) on all accounts. Two-factor authentication requires you to verify your identity with one additional step before logging in to sensitive accounts. This makes it much harder for hackers to break into your accounts and steal your data.
- Protect your devices with antivirus software. VPNs don’t protect against malware, so all of your devices should have a reputable, high-quality antivirus installed.
- Regularly update your apps and operating systems. Software updates often contain security patches against the latest vulnerabilities. Hackers frequently target people who delay installing updates because systems that are not up to date make easy targets.
- Learn the warning signs of a phishing scam. Scammers may try to trick you into giving up sensitive information via email. Learn how to identify phishing attacks so that you can safely delete fraudulent messages.
- Use a Dark Web scanner to warn you if your data has been compromised. Aura can alert you when your personal data is posted for sale on the Dark Web. This gives you early warning when you are at risk of identity theft.
- Consider signing up for identity theft protection. Aura’s identity theft protection solution provides 24/7 White Glove Fraud Resolution support backed by a $1 million insurance policy against losses incurred due to identity theft.
💡 Related: Pros and Cons of Using a VPN – Do You Need One? →
The Bottom Line: Choose an All-In-One Solution for Better Protection
VPNs play an important role in protecting users against online threats. Encrypting your data and anonymizing your internet usage can prevent a wide range of scams and cyberattacks.
However, online threats are constantly increasing, and VPNs are only part of the answer.
Aura’s all-in-one digital security solution combines a secure VPN with a full-featured password manager, proactive credit monitoring, and Dark Web scanning. If you do find yourself targeted by a scam, Aura’s U.S.-based 24/7 Fraud Solution Specialists will help you navigate every step of the recovery process.