Can Your Device Get a Virus Even If You’re Using a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) can do wonders for your privacy, but it can't completely defend you from the ever-increasing number of viruses — at least, not without help.
According to the latest cyber threat reports [*]:
There were 5.5 billion malware attacks worldwide in 2022 alone.
To stay safe against this kind of risk level, you need more than a VPN — you need a plan, and an entire cybersecurity solution.
In this guide, we’ll explore what a VPN does and doesn’t do, how to protect yourself from viruses, and the steps to take if you think your device has been compromised by cybercriminals.
How Does a VPN Protect You? Can It Stop Viruses and Malware?
A VPN can protect you from some viruses and malware infections, but it won't stop them all. Even the best VPNs will fall short of your expectations if antivirus protection is what you're looking for (and some VPN scams can even put your device more at risk of viruses and malware).
To understand how VPNs can (and can’t) protect you from viruses, you first need to know what they do.
A VPN service creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and your destination. By encrypting your personal data and rerouting your internet traffic through a remote VPN server, a VPN connection hides your information and online activity from all prying eyes — including hackers or even your internet service provider (ISP).
While the changing online landscape has made some VPN features less important than they once were, VPNs still serve as powerful privacy tools.
VPNs work best to prevent cybercriminals from exploiting your private information, such as your passwords, financial data, and browsing history — especially when you’re using public Wi-Fi networks or Wi-Fi hotspots.
While not its primary function, a VPN does provide some online security from computer viruses in the following ways:
- Prevents scammers from accessing your personal data. A VPN encrypts any data you transmit to websites. So, even if hackers have accessed your network and are spying on you, they won’t be able to infiltrate your accounts or insert malware-laden links into your messages.
- Slows down or stops malware infections. Cybercriminals use malware that communicates over open ports. Good VPNs use more secure ports and block the riskier ones to make this process more difficult and less effective for hackers.
- Prevents malicious ads from spreading malware. Many VPN providers now include ad blockers in their services. This ensures that users don't click on ads embedded with malicious files.
- Blocks Man-in-the-Middle attacks. Secure VPN internet connections utilize a tunnel that prevents Man-in-the-Middle attackers from intercepting and altering your communications.
💡 Related: Can a VPN Protect You Against Hackers? →
8 Ways You Can Still Get Viruses While Using a VPN
VPNs mask your IP address and your data while it's in transit, but they can't protect you from every online threat. Regardless if you're using VPNs on iPhones, Androids, or any other devices, you still need to practice good internet hygiene to stay safe online.
Here are some of the situations in which a VPN won’t protect you against viruses and hacking:
- Malicious links in phishing messages. Hackers use links in fake emails, fraudulent texts, and websites to trick you into downloading viruses or revealing sensitive information. A VPN can’t protect you if you click on one of these dangerous links.
- Malware and other viruses. VPNs have no internal security features to fight against malware. If your device gets infected, your VPN can't detect or remove the virus.
- Social engineering attacks. Scammers manipulate unsuspecting victims and lure them into making irrational moves. VPNs can't save you from bad decisions, such as clicking on malicious links, installing viruses, or authorizing infected plugins.
- Fake websites. Cybercriminals create malicious websites that appear safe but will install malware onto your device or steal your information. Your ISP and many premium VPN servers block some known malicious and phishing sites — but not all. VPNs without Domain Name System (DNS) filtering might override your ISP's DNS filtering and expose you to malware.
- Hackers stealing encryption keys. If cybercriminals get their hands on your VPN service’s encryption keys, they could decrypt your traffic and data. Hackers might also use cryptographic attacks to break encryption ciphers.
- Protocol vulnerabilities. If your VPN uses weaker protocols, hackers can exploit their vulnerabilities and gain access to the tunnel and intercept your data.
- Infected ads. Many cybercriminals use malware-infected ads to infiltrate user devices. Free VPNs that bombard you with ads may actually expose you to these attacks.
- DNS leaks. An improperly configured VPN could leak your DNS queries and expose your browsing history and IP address. Without DNS leak protection, VPNs may leave you vulnerable to malware and other attacks.
Antivirus vs. VPN: How They Both Keep You Safe
Every VPN has its pros and cons, but no service is directly comparable to a dedicated antivirus program (or an all-in-one digital security solution).
VPNs provide privacy while antivirus software prevents, detects, and removes viruses. Together, however, VPNs and antivirus software provide complementary real-time protection and internet security.
This table outlines the uses, pros, and cons of each.