Consumer Reports: How to choose a VPN, or virtual private network

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With stories of widespread hackings and websites selling your data, we all want to know how to keep our digital lives private and secure. (WLS)

With stories of widespread hackings and websites selling your data, we all want to know how to keep our digital lives private and secure.

One easy way is to use a VPN, or virtual private network, on your computer and smartphone.

But how do you know which one is right for you? Consumer Reports offers some guidelines.

When Sara and Corey Meyer launched their chocolate company, Little Bird Kitchen, they knew they'd have to travel all over the country to help it take flight.

"In order to stay connected to our inventory, we needed a way to do it securely and we needed a VPN," Sara Meyer said.

Think of it as the server in the middle. In order for data to travel between your computer and another server, like a website, app, or the cloud, it has to pass through the VPN first - making your digital footprint harder to follow.

"Most good VPNs also will have encryption. That will secure your data going back and forth," said Bree Fowler, Consumer Reports Tech Editor.

It's not just for businesses. Fowler said anyone who uses public WiFi, like at a coffee shop or airport, would be wise to use a VPN.

Choosing a service can be complicated. Meyer's first two tries soured quickly.

"We had to keep logging in and it was so frustrating being in Ohio in a hotel room and trying to get into our inventory system and we couldn't," she said.

Her current VPN allows her to log in with one click.

"If you have to add in codes or put in a password, it may not get used and a VPN that isn't used is not going to protect you," Fowler said.

Another thing to look for is whether the company keeps a log of your activity.

"Some VPNs make no bones about the fact that they are collecting and selling your data, which is kind of antithetical to the idea of a VPN in the first place," Fowler said.

This is more common among free VPNs, but if you're willing to pay for privacy, a typical service for consumers will run you about $5-$10 a month. Businesses will likely pay more. But Meyer said the peace of mind really sweetens the deal.

"I can be sitting anywhere where there is WiFi and know that we are protected," Meyer said.

This isn't just for people who use public WiFi. Consumer Reports said you can also use it in your own home so that your internet service provider can't keep track of what you are looking at or shopping for, because they can collect your data too.

All Consumer Reports material Copyright 2017 Consumer Reports, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Consumer Reports is a not-for-profit organization which accepts no advertising. It has no commercial relationship with any advertiser or sponsor on this site. For more information visit consumer.org
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