You've likely heard the adage that visiting sketchy sites can infect your PC. Though the P2P community is burgeoning, many torrenters don't know whether they're secured. There's never a fool-proof way to be 100% safe and anonymous. However, it's possible to get pretty close!
Before we get started, there are two key facts to remember:
- Torrenting is as secure as the weakest link in the chain. In other words, you could have the most secure setup in the world. However, that setup could use a “free” VPN that is more dangerous than not using a VPN at all! We'll help you keep every link in that chain secured in this post.
Can I Get Viruses from Torrents?
The chain of grabbing a torrent usually goes something as follows:
- You connect to a trusted VPN service.
- You use a search engine to find a magnet link or .torrent file.
- You open up your torrent client, load that torrent up, and start.
Going back to the “weakest link” concept, let's start with the site you're using. Is it reputable in the P2P community? Has it been online for a while, or did it suddenly pop up? Research the sites and search engines for torrents before using them! Users who don't exercise caution could find themselves infected right after torrenting. Most users tend to blame the infection on another torrent user. Many people don't even consider that they could have been infected by the torrent search engine or site they used.
Next, we have the torrent client itself to investigate. There have been instances where users have been infected by poisoned chunks of data. This is when a malicious user inserts malware into a benign torrent. However, every modern torrent client uses hashing to prevent this attack. It's always a possibility that there's a zero-day exploit for your torrent client. However, that's the case with every piece of software in existence. As long as you stick with well-known clients, you should be good on this end.
The next “link” we have to examine closely is the anonymity service you use. Even if torrenting is legal in your country, never torrent without a trusted VPN! Again, all that's necessary is a few hours of researching reputable providers. If you are looking for one, you will find our best VPNs for torrenting page very useful.
How Do You Check a Torrent for a Virus?
Unlike many users believe, it isn't always the most popular torrents that are safest. The seeder to leecher ratio is easy enough to manipulate with seedboxes. Thankfully, here are a few easy checks that can sniff out most problematic torrents:
- Check the file's format. If it's a movie, for example, the extension should be .mp4, .mkv, or another modern format. Old video extensions, like .wmv, should be avoided unless you trust the uploader.
- If it's an executable (.exe), then run away, because you will not be getting anything besides an infection!
- Always use a virus scanner you trust on files before opening them!
How Can I Minimize My Chances of Being Infected While Torrenting?
There are some steps you can take in order to lower the chances of getting a virus when you download torrents:
- You should always have a proactive anti-virus tool running. Windows Defender isn't good enough. Remember, all of your files and your private life and identity are at stake. Antimalware software is not the place to cheap out.
- Read the comments on torrents before downloading them. Fake torrents often are accompanied by fake comments. However, the P2P community is usually quick to call out fake and malicious torrents.
- Do not download torrents uploaded by anonymous users. Always look at the profile of the uploader to make sure that it's a trusted user.
- Keep all of your media-playing software up to date. For example, VLC Media Player is a popular target for exploits. These can sometimes enable hackers to infect you through a working video file!
How Can I Configure My Computer to Avoid P2P Infections?
We'll get a bit technical here. This section is for users who want to leave no stone unturned. If you're looking to have the lowest chance of infection, read on!
Use a Windows Alternative
Windows is the operating system installed on the vast majority of consumer computers. Because of its popularity and closed-source nature, it's always a target for hackers.
Linux, on the other hand, is a lesser-used genre of operating system. While Linux machines can be infected, almost all malware is targeted at Windows. This is partially because Linux has far superior built-in security measures. Another reason is that hackers want the most infections possible. If less than 10% of users are on Linux, most would see no point in making malware for it.
Also unlike Windows, most flavors of Linux are completely free. In recent years, the creators of popular Linux operating systems have made them far more user-friendly. A common favorite due to ease of use and security is Ubuntu Linux.
Use a Virtual Machine
This is a technique used by security professionals to investigate known malware. A Virtual Machine (VM) is essentially a “fake computer” running inside your computer. Though some resources are shared, it's very hard for malware to pass through from a VM to your computer. Especially if you're using Linux, chances are astronomically low.
For added security, you can use a different Linux operating system on the VM.
Try a Seedbox
Looking for something a little more hands-off? You may be interested in subscribing to a seedbox service. These are servers you can rent that handle all the seeding and leeching for you. Once a file is downloaded, you can grab it via direct download link (DDL).
Of course, seedboxes come with their own privacy concerns. You should always use cryptocurrency with these and do careful research. Always use a VPN in conjunction with a seedbox.
Does Using a VPN Protect Me from Viruses?
The term “Virtual Private Network” (VPN) is often tossed around without an explanation. Users often know it's a product that's necessary. Unfortunately, many newer users overestimate the security that a VPN can provide.
In short, a VPN is a service that masks your identity to the world. Unlike a proxy server, VPNs cover classic issues like DNS leaks. Many providers create their own user-friendly GUIs.
Remember, a VPN primarily is there to prevent snooping. The service can make it more difficult or impossible for other users to get your information. Another common usage of a VPN is on public Wi-Fi. Since VPNs encrypt all web traffic, other users aren't able to steal your credentials.
A VPN can stop so-called “man-in-the-middle” attacks by encrypting everything. That attack happens when a user pretends to be a trusted server but actually steals your information.
Being in a torrent swarm is similar to being on public Wi-Fi. You're connected with lots of users and machines you don't know. You're trusting them to provide you with clean data. The nature of P2P requires you to open ports up to strangers. Simply keeping everything encrypted and anonymized is the right move.
That being said, don't rely only on your VPN to protect you. Some services may advertise “malware blocking” features. These typically block malicious sites at the DNS level. Others even have their own rudimentary antivirus systems.
Making Sense of It All
There are only a few places where 99% of people end up going wrong. Given our three-link chain of “search engine” -> “VPN” -> “client”, it sounds so simple. As with many technical things, the devil is in the details. Though it is literally as simple as it sounds, it's quite a bit of research. Many times, new users want to start off on a sprint.
Remember, learning the art of torrenting requires patience. You'll naturally pick up more information over time on kicking malware to the curb. Some of it's common sense, and some of it is simply through discussion with the P2P community. Most users on P2P forums are there because they are looking to help newer users. Don't be shy, and before you know it, you can have both the reputation and skill of a guru!