It seems like there’s a new threat lurking on the Internet every day. But there’s a relatively easy way to stay safe by using what’s called a virtual private network (VPN). Here’s what you need to know to get started…

VPNs provide security while keeping ­users anonymous. You can download and install VPN software on your phone, tablet or computer just like any other app. Once installed and activated, most VPNs allow users to connect to the service on multiple devices with a single account. The software encrypts the data you send and routes it through secure connections, or “tunnels,” to the VPN provider’s servers and then to the site you’re trying to reach.

Since VPNs channel traffic through tunnels that require authentication from anyone trying to access them, they make the data you send and receive much harder for anyone else to see or steal. This is particularly useful when using public Wi-Fi—a common target of cybercriminals. But there’s a second benefit as well. VPNs also provide online anonymity by hiding information about your IP address and making it appear that your data originated not from your computer but from the location of the VPN’s servers. Using a VPN can slow down your Internet speed a little, but this depends on a lot of factors such as the distance to the servers you’re accessing and the speed of your own home Internet service. 

With VPNs, you usually get what you pay for. There are hundreds of VPN services to choose from, most of which cost between $3 and $12 a month. Many offer free versions, but consider the risks before playing it cheap when it comes to online security and ­anonymity. Free VPNs often either limit the amount of data you can send or limit the data transfer speed. Most free VPN services collect your information and use that data to target you with ads or even sell your information to third parties. More troubling is that criminals have been known to set up free VPNs to steal information from unsuspecting customers looking for security without the expense. 

Keep your VPN up to date. Even VPNs can be hacked. As with all software, there may be bugs and glitches, so it is important to download all security updates offered by your VPN provider as soon as they are available. 

Top VPNs: Not all VPNs are created equal. Among the best is NordVPN. At $6.99 to $11.95 per month (depending on plan duration), NordVPN boasts a massive, more-than-5,000-strong global server network, allows up to six simultaneous connections per subscriber and stands by a strong customer privacy policy. The VPN service called Private Internet Access costs $2.91 to $6.95 per month and is among the least expensive VPNs, though it has a feature-rich platform. Finally, consider IPVanish, whose interface is more user-friendly than that of Private Internet Access. It costs $3.74 to $11.99 per month.