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Cheap lifetime VPNs: A rip-off you should avoid

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flickr / Mike MacKenzie)

A common mantra in life is that cheap is never normally a good bet for the long term. There is usually a good reason why a particular product or service is cheap. And this philosophy applies in equal measures to VPN services.

To the uninitiated looking to understand what all the fuss is about, VPNs are private networks that route your online traffic through secure, remote servers. In other words, if somebody tries to snoop on the encrypted data generated by any browsing that you do with a VPN, then they will be unable to read it. The marketplace offers us all kinds of VPN services these days and, unsurprisingly, not all are created equal. There are a whole host of features that you can scrutinise when comparing different VPN services; or example - number of servers, speed, no-log capability and type of encryption, to name but a few. And of course, the all important price point.

Which leads us to a particularly aggressive marketing strategy which has been employed by some VPN services with regards to pricing plans - the ‘cheap lifetime’ VPN. For example, at the time of writing, VPN Unlimited are offering a lifetime subscription for $39, a subscription that would normally go for $499.99. Great news right? A massively discounted price so long as you sign up for life. But is this actually a good deal and what are the potential pitfalls generally with this type of too-good-to-be-true deal? Let’s take a closer look at the bigger picture.

We’ve touched upon the practice of some service providers who tout for new business by offering 'unlimited lifetime subscriptions' ridiculously low prices (at the time of writing, deals of $30 or less. This is the kind of offer that gives a lifetime VPN subscription by paying a one-time fee. But let’s do the maths. If you start adding up the costs of the servers that are needed to run the service, the salaries of employees, maintenance etc it becomes apparent that running a VPN is far from inexpensive. So how then can a VPN service offer a lifetime VPN deal for $30 when that figure hardly covers the cost of a server per person. And not to mention a darker side to things - if a VPN provider is offering you such a low cost then either their quality is below par or they are using other dubious means of monetising such as selling data or running malicious ads etc.

Caveat emptor

These lifetime subscription deals do not actually cover the recurring costs of the VPN provider in question. Due to the dependence on ongoing advertising campaigns (it’s a congested market out there), these VPN providers are using these deals to attract new customers who are in fact financing the running expenses of the business. On this basis, such VPN providers have no incentive to expand their infrastructure or to invest in improving their product.

I suspect that these lifetime plans are being used by many unestablished brands as a tool to acquire new customers; no serious provider is offering lifetime deals for a low price point. There's a high risk that the provider won't survive for long, their very sustainability is seriously in question. All of this clearly leaves users at a massive disadvantage. Also, if you end up committing to one of these lifetime plans, where’s the guarantee that the VPN provider won't be changing its terms of service so that you end up by having no choice other than accepting whatever the VPN provider decides?

How does this impact on quality of service? I suspect that if somebody is paying $30 for a lifetime VPN then they are clearly not too concerned about quality. Such misleading prices ends up damaging the quality of VPN providers in the market, because the $10 / month that they might be charging seems to be very expensive in comparison.

And do you care about security? The clear lack of expertise within these ‘cheap’  VPN providers poses a big risk to their users. It’s not enough just to create a VPN service and go hell-for-leather after new customers; you have to continuously maintain and improve the service which includes investing in hack-proof technology, employing the smartest (and most expensive) minds and paying for expensive and more secure servers.

You don’t just create a VPN and leave it alone to trundle along nicely. Things change. For example, tunnelling protocols. A trusted and reputable  VPN provider will not rely on dated protocols, they will invest and improve accordingly. This all takes money. Money you won’t have if you rely on selling lifetime deals at $30.

So if you are considering one of these deals then do a little research. Look at the quality and number of reviews for the provider in question. Has the VPNs been audited by an independent investigator? But ultimately, if you are after poor quality, low levels of security and a VPN provider that might be bankrupt in a few months then sure, add it to your cart. You probably wouldn’t go for the cheapest security solution to protect your home so why take the risk with your online security - there’s an awful lot at stake if you do.

Caveat emptor as they say.

Sebastian Schaub, founder, hide.me