If you’re on your laptop using the free Wi-Fi at your neighborhood coffee house, there’s a chance every keystroke you make is being watched by a hacker who’s after your credit card numbers, banking passwords and browsing history.

Hacking has become a widespread problem. A new hacker attack occurs at a rate of every 39 seconds on average, according to one recent study conducted by the University of Maryland. It’s a problem affecting approximately 1 out of every 3 Americans every year. Since 2013, there have been about 3.8 million records stolen from breaches on a daily basis, this according to an estimate fromCybersecurity Ventures.

You can protect your privacy online by using what’s known as a virtual private network or VPN, a data encryption service that most internet service providers do not provide by default. A VPN is a way to route your computer, smartphone or tablet’s network connection through a server with the intention of hiding your online activity.

Without a VPN, your data is essentially “out in the open”—anyone on the same network connection (like on a public Wi-Fi connection in a coffee shop) could, with the right piece of software, see everything you’re doing. A VPN largely makes this impossible, preventing anyone from easily identifying what websites you’re visiting, what type of data you’re transferring or even where you’re located.

Here’s how VPN works: If you were to try to access a particular website using a traditional network configuration, your device would first connect to the network then directly to the site you want to visit. With a VPN, however, your device first connects to a client that encrypts your data before passing it onto a server, at which time it finally reaches its destination. Ultimately, this is more than just a way to mask your IP address — it’s a way to keep all of your confidential information from falling into the wrong hands. In addition to the encryption-related benefits, the site or service you’re connecting to will view your “location” as that of the VPN server — not of your home or business.

Is there a downside to using a VPN?

The only real downside to using a VPN is one of performance. Because your device is no longer directly connecting to the site or service you’re attempting to access, your internet connection may seem a little “slower”than it otherwise might be. This is due to the additional steps required for encryption and the re-routing of traffic. For many, however, slower download speeds is a small price to pay for an added level of protection that would be difficult to replicate through other means. When shopping for a VPN, consider checking online ratings for the fastest VPNs.

Choosing the VPN That is Right For You

Most VPN services are offered on a subscription basis and can range from $7 per month per user to $50 or more per year depending on the service selected. Begin your search by understanding that all VPN providers are not created equally —choose one that combines higher speeds and levels of security with ease of installation and use. There are several internet guides available online with the latest reviews of subscription and free VPNs.