If you’re not yet aware, “free downloads” sites and free video-streaming sites can be some of the worst websites to visit from a privacy and safety perspective. I’m not talking about popular, legal mainstream sites and services like Youtube, Hulu, Amazon Prime or download sites like Filehippo, Snapfiles and Sourceforge. Rather, sites that may operate in a legal grey area or may offer content illegally, depending on where you live: such as those that allow downloads or streaming without the copyright owner’s permission. These are the types of sites where you’re more likely to pick up malware, viruses or adware.
3 areas of concern with free downloads / streaming sites
- Browser injection – compromises when browsing a website / clicking on things normally, without intentionally downloading files.
- Downloading malware – downloading a mislabeled file or a working, valid file containing malware that installs when you click on the file or install the downloaded program.
- Privacy – “free downloads” sites tend to be advertisement heavy, moreso than mainstream websites. Each advertisement or ad network running in the background represents another company getting information about your online activities. This also may increase your chances for malvertising or other browser-injection-relatead problems.
While you can potentially run into these problems on any site, “free downloads” and free, no registration TV show and Movie streaming sites tend to be worse than their mainstream counterparts.
Though there are several things you can do to increase your chances of not picking up a virus or malware from one of these free sites, there’s one trick that will not only help protect you from some of the most-common threats, it can actually speed up your web browsing on these sites:
Run ad-blocking software
Ad-blocking software is a must if you’re looking for free downloads or to stream from sites like are shared on the free streaming list. Not only will blocking ads speed up your web browsing, but can decrease your chances of being hit with malvertising, which can expose you to a whole host of problems like malware, ransomware, adware and malicious cryptomining.
Your best bet for ad-blocking is uBlock Orgin, which is available for Firefox and Chrome / Chromium browsers, including Opera and now Microsoft Edge. uBlock Orgin is a wide-spectrum content-blocking app, not just a simple advertisement blocker, so it’s more effective than something that simply blocks ads.
If you have some technical know-how, I highly recommend looking into Pi-hole, which is a DNS-level content blocker for your whole network. If you have an always-on computer and a few CPU MHz, MB RAM and GB of free space, you can setup Pi-hole on Virtualbox. I use this option and it works well. You can usually find a pre-loaded SD card or even a full-setup Rasberry Pi with Pi-hole installed on eBay if you’d rather go that route.
Scan downloaded files before clicking / installing
If you’re downloading software, especially, you should always run some kind of virus scan on the file / archive before clicking on the download or installing software from a questionably-legit source.
For small files, the best option is probably Virus Total, which uses information from numerous different scanners and other sources to detect whether a file contains malware or a virus. However, MalwareBytes is available for most desktop and mobile operating systems (not Linux) and is reputable. Also, Windows Defender is available, and that seemed sufficient back when I used Windows.
Keep browser and OS software updated
Modern web browsers like Firefox, Opera, Edge and Chrome are updated with new features and fixes for security issues from time to time. The same goes for operating systems like Windows, Linux Mac, iOS and Android. You can minimize your chances of becoming infected by a known exploit by keeping your web browser, desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile device updated. How you update your browser or device depends on the browser and operating system you’re using. While I won’t go into the “how to” here, if you need help, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll respond ASAP.
Use a VPN to hide your IP address and obscure online activity
VPNs won’t do anything to protect your computer from a virus or malware, but using a VPN will do two things:
- It hides your real IP address from websites that you visit
- It obscures or completely hides the specifics of your online activity from your ISP while connected to the VPN
Just how “hidden” you are behind a VPN varies wildly depending on what you do while connected to a VPN and what you did to setup before connecting to the VPN. For the average internet user, a VPN will do very little beyond what is listed above. A little bit of privacy from the sites you visit (potentially) and from your ISP (definitely, to varying degrees). There are some VPN services on the VPN providers list. I know Private Internet Access by default uses their own DNS servers (which is generally the weak point for ISP privacy), and I recommend them or Mullvad.