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The Internet is a web of interconnected computers that communicate and share data with each other. As soon as someone goes online, the web will start tracking their data, including location, IP address, and even personal information. It usually doesn’t matter if it’s just random data, but what about when it’s bank accounts, business, personal IDs, and even passwords?
As the world becomes more and more interconnected – and more reliant on technology – small business owners are facing an unprecedented level of IT and security issues. Cyber-attacks are becoming more prevalent, which can leave sensitive business information vulnerable.
Small and medium-sized businesses, in particular, are often targeted by hackers because they aren’t equipped to protect themselves from cyber-attacks. In fact, according to a study from Kelser Corporation, at least 65% of cyber-attacks are aimed at small and medium-sized businesses. Common attacks like ransomware attacks, which are cheap and easy for the attacker to carry out, can be downright crippling to a business.
Anyone who has worked in security knows that no layer of protection is 100% infallible. Unfortunately, however, by the time most people are able to figure out that something is going on, the damage is already done. For a small company that lacks both the time and capital to deal with losses that stem from cyber-attacks, the most effective way to protect itself is to prevent these types of attacks from happening in the first place.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is the solution that many people choose. A VPN service lets its users access the Internet in a safe and private manner by routing their traffic through a server. By doing so, online activities are hidden and secured, which protects important information and identity.
Once connected to a VPN client, it will start encrypting data – essentially, it converts the data into codes – which makes it almost impossible for outsiders to decode what the data actually means.
Encryption is powerful and especially important when it comes to data protection. Although it’s not impossible to decrypt encrypted data, encryption still works as a deterrent, given the time and effort required to decrypt it.
This encrypted data is then transferred to the VPN server and, from there, to the Internet. Since the data was sent to the Internet from the VPN server, not from a home or office computer, IP addresses and locations can’t be retrieved. This makes it harder to identify who is accessing data, and from what device.
Why a small business needs a VPN
Any business that transfers its data through the Internet is at risk of cybercrime. It doesn’t just apply to government entities and e-commerce companies anymore. Sadly, even sending a simple email can expose a business to potential threats. VPNs eliminate this risk.
But the benefits don’t stop there. VPNs can help businesses scale safely and securely.
As businesses grow, they need to add more servers, computers, and devices to the network, most (if not all) of which connect to the Internet. With a VPN, these connections are secure.
For businesses that use teleworkers and/or have sales reps, VPNs can secure connections to data and accounts. Public Wi-Fi, especially connections that don’t require a password and enable auto-connect, are hotbeds for hackers waiting to infiltrate systems. Many people are unaware of these hidden risks and use public Wi-Fi frequently. Using a VPN when on public Wi-Fi ensures that connections between a device and company information are protected, which prevents information from leaking.
To stop the increasing trend of sender fraud, businesses should consider implementing multi-layered email security solutions that include encryption, anti-malware applications, identifying and rejecting emails with forged addresses, and ongoing monitoring for unusual email-sending behavior, in addition to utilizing VPN services.
A VPN is also a handy tool to circumvent certain geographic restrictions. For example, if working in China, using a VPN is almost compulsory to access the global network since the Chinese Great Firewall blocks access to many websites, including Google, Facebook, and most recently, GitHub. Most VPNs offer multiple server locations. By connecting to a server in a different country, these types of geographic restrictions can be bypassed.
VPNs convert data into coded formats, making it nearly impossible for outsiders to decode the information, therefore protecting it from potential malware attacks. Additionally, many VPN providers enhance their security features by integrating anti-malware and anti-spyware applications into their VPN suites, combating potential threats like viruses and trojans. This is especially beneficial for businesses using public Wi-Fi networks, which are often hotbeds for hackers. Furthermore, since a VPN hides the identity and location of the user, it becomes convenient to prevent targeted malware attacks based on geographic location.
Many VPNs also add an additional layer of protection to their services by deploying anti-malware and anti-spyware applications together with their standard VPN suite. This combats viruses and trojans.
Which businesses should use a VPN?
The answer to this question is pretty simple: any business that cares about the security of its data and the longevity of business operations.
Hacking is on the rise, and news headlines about massive data breaches are an almost weekly occurrence. Sensitive customer data – including username/password combos, addresses, and credit card information – is being widely circulated on the Internet as a result. Not only is this terrible for the victims, but it also damages company reputation and credibility. When you factor in things like lawsuits that will inevitably arise in the aftermath, it can be crippling to the point where a business has no choice but to close up shop.
How unprofessional does it look if a business’s website is down? Or worse, it’s just a blank page that says it was hacked. What about when a massive number of spam emails are sent out because hackers used brute force attacks to crack passwords?
Businesses need to be more vigilant than ever these days.
When a small business should use a VPN
VPN software works silently in the background, so it’s unobtrusive when it comes to a business’s day-to-day operations. Ideally, a VPN all the time, but there are some instances when using one is indispensable:
When sending important business data
Important data – including customer information, login IDs, passwords, and credit card information – must be encrypted before being shared with others. If left unprotected, there’s a good chance that hackers will try to steal it.
When transferring money
Any monetary transactions conducted over the Internet should be protected by data encryption. Bank accounts and passwords are the primary targets of hackers – they will stop at nothing to gain access to someone else’s money. Always use a VPN when making payments and sending money to ensure that no financial information is leaked.
When using public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi, especially free Wi-Fi networks that don’t require any registration to access, are often infected with malware. Also, keep in mind that when using public Wi-fi, all the computers and devices that are connected to the network are also connected, and there’s always a chance that a hacker is lurking in the shadows, just waiting to pick up unencrypted data.
When on VoIP
Most Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications don’t come with an encryption feature. Businesses that use Google Hangouts and Skype should always use a VPN.
What to look for in a VPN
The market for VPNs has exploded, and new service providers are popping up every week. As such, trying to identify the best VPNs can be downright overwhelming.
A good rule of thumb is to find a healthy balance between cost and utility. Ease of use and customer support, while less important, should also be considered, especially for those who are not tech-savvy.
Here are some criteria and guidelines to use when evaluating options:
Consider things like:
- The protocol that the VPN service uses – While most VPNs tend to offer the same protocols, it’s important to make sure that all standard protocols are built-in. This includes PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, SSTP, IKEv2, and OpenVPN.
- VPN Integration – At the very least, the VPN should be usable on Windows and Mac OS since they are the most-used operating systems on desktop computers. If accessing data on mobile devices and tablets, it’s important that the VPN be functional on iOS and/or Android, too.
- Location of Company – This is especially important to consider for businesses that value privacy above all else. For example, VPN service providers based in the United States are not staunch proponents of privacy and will quickly turn browsing information over to the government, if and/or when requested. If privacy is near the top of the list of priorities, it’s best to choose a VPN based in a more “consumer” friendly country, like Panama.
- Location of Servers – If getting around geographic restrictions is important, be sure to pick a company that has servers in that country.
- Number of Simultaneous Connections – For businesses that need multiple connections at the same time, it’s important to choose a VPN provider that offers such. Many are limited to 2 or 3 simultaneous connections, which can get cost-prohibitive quickly if a large workforce needs to be using the VPN, all at the same time
- Speed – No one wants to sit around and wait for things to load, circa dial-up Internet. So be sure to choose a VPN that owns their physical servers. Any VPN service that relies on third-party servers won’t be able to guarantee high speed. Most will also cap bandwidth.
In the world of VPN’s, it’s important to note that price doesn’t necessarily reflect quality. And pricing really runs the gamut, from a few dollars per month to $10-15/month. Thankfully, most do offer discounts for longer-term subscription commitments.
A general rule of thumb is to avoid any VPN service that offers subscriptions for life. After all, it’s never guaranteed since who knows how long they will even be in business.
Ease of use
Most VPN services are relatively simple to configure and connect to, but some do provide a range of options for protocol customization, which is great for tech geeks and business owners who need a higher level of security. This is usually not a deciding factor for a VPN service, however.
We recommend doing due diligence and finding an interface that’s intuitive and easy to work with.
Customer support is extremely important, especially for businesses that can’t afford downtime. Look for a VPN that offers 24/7 support – it’s almost a standard in this industry at this point, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find one that at least offers 24/7 chat support. Most also offer extensive knowledge bases, which are great for troubleshooting, as well as an email ticketing system.
Beyond these standard support options, some VPNs also offer a dedicated account manager, which is particularly helpful for those who are technologically challenged.
Our top VPN picks for small business owners
Based on the criteria outlined above, here are our top picks for the best VPNs for small businesses.
Perimeter 81 offers an excellent suite of cybersecurity tools for small to medium-sized businesses. While the flexibility, ease of use, and scalability are always being improved, and users may occasionally notice small performance issues, this does not put a damper on overall performance and speed. Those who require speed above all else may need to find a different and less robust business VPN provider. Yet as a whole, the Perimeter 81 network is reliable and affordable and can help businesses create a zero-trust network with guaranteed user authentication. Business owners can deploy an extremely secure VPN server network without the high costs associated with physical server hardware and security personnel.
ExpressVPN is another VPN known for fast speeds and high levels of security. This VPN service provider has over 2,000 servers across 160 cities in 94 countries. Besides standard protection protocols like OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, and SSTP, they also offer industry-grade encryption and a flawless forward policy. The 15-month plan offers the best value for money at $6.67 per month, and a 30-day money-back guarantee. It’s important to note that ExpressVPN limits users to three simultaneous connections, which may be somewhat limiting for businesses looking to scale.
NordVPN comes with a wide array of features, including standard OpenVPN protocol and AES 256-bit encryption, which prevents data leaks. It also has a built-in server obfuscation feature to get around VPN blocks. 4 pricing plans are available, all of which have access to the entire suite of features. The best value is the 3-year plan, which comes in at $2.99 per month. NordVPN’s major downside is the lack of phone-based customer support.
VyprVPN is one of the fastest and most reliable VPNs. Since the company owns its own servers, there are fewer hoops to jump through, which means higher speeds and more stable connections. Their Chameleon protocol is also a nice addition to the suite, which allows for even more options to hide local servers. Unlike most other VPN service providers, VyprVPN offers 2 plans specifically for business users, which start at $299 per year (see their business page here). The biggest knock against VyprVPN is that the company lacks a straightforward refund policy and has no anonymous payment option.
IPVanish is one of the fastest VPNs in the world, with more than 1,300 servers in 75 countries, and its user-friendly design is a big plus for users who aren’t tech-savvy. For businesses that use Peer-to-Peer connections and VoIP, IPVanish is the perfect selection because it offers a highly secure SOCKS5 proxy. Monthly plans are $10, but the price drops considerably for longer-term subscriptions. IPVanish VPN’s biggest drawback is an unreliable no-log policy, which completely contradicts their no-log claim.
PureVPN doesn’t rely on third-party servers, which means impressive security and faster speeds than many other VPNs on the market. Other than the standard protection features, PureVPN also provides unlimited data transfers and split-tunneling functionality that allows users to decide which data to send through the VPN connection. Customers looking for even more security options will also enjoy the service’s IPv6 leak protection. At $2.88/month on the 2-year plan, PureVPN is one of the most affordable on the market. The downsides that come with the price are unstable connections and a lack of customer support.
CyberGhost VPN offers excellent data protection with 256-bit AES encryption, solid customer support, and access to over 3,800 servers in 60 countries. It’s a flexible and fast VPN for businesses of any shape and size. CyberGhost comes in at $12.99/ month on a month-to-month plan and drops to $2.75/ month with a 3-year commitment. No free trials are available, but all plans do come with a money-back guarantee. A word of caution on CyberGhost VPN: it’s owned by a company with a questionable history. They also rely on third-party software for data collection.
Hotspot Shield VPN
Hotspot Shield VPN is known for its free browser extension, which provides a VPN connection with a 500 MB data cap. The premium version of Hotspot Shield provides access to over 2,500 servers in 25 different countries and has a complete suite of security features, including leak protection, standard protocols, a traffic kill switch, and more IP ranges for users to choose from. Plans range from $12.99/month to $199.99 for life. Hotspot Shield VPN has questionable data gathering policies, inconsistent speeds, and lacks phone-based customer support.