6 tips on staying safe when Torrenting

Torrenting can be an extremely risky business. Not only can you stumble across films, TV shows, and applications that turn out to be full of malware, but you could end up in a lot of trouble due to copyright restrictions. By following the six tips in this guide you can torrent safely.

 

What are the risks of torrenting?

Grabbing pirated content from BitTorrent seeds can save you a lot of money, but it is completely illegal to download copyrighted material. Doing so means that you could be served a cease and desist letter by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). You could even end up having to pay a fine to the copyright holder, or worse, end up in court on criminal charges.

Research conducted last year revealed that popular shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Westworld, and Stranger Things are all a war zone when it comes to malware. This is because hackers know they will be downloaded millions of times and are an easy way to infect people with malware, spyware, trojans and other malicious programs that can take your system and information hostage. Game of Thrones was the show with the most infected torrents - with 30,000 infected torrents discovered by Kaspersky Labs.

How to stay safe when torrenting

Torrenting poses some very real risks, but there are some steps that you can take to mitigate against them. Below we have listed some tips you can use to stay safer when torrenting. For more information on any of the tips, simply click the links:

Use a VPN for safer torrenting

Using a VPN for torrenting is a no brainer. A VPN encrypts all the data coming and going from your machine. This stops your ISP from being able to track the websites you visit. It also means that it has no idea whether you are downloading from torrent repositories. With a VPN connection you gain complete privacy, which means that you are free to use websites without fear of repercussions.

VPNs also stop the websites and services that you visit from tracking your real IP address. As a result, anybody attempting to track the people who are downloading from torrent websites will not actually be able to get your IP address. Instead, they will only see the VPN server’s IP address. 

Admittedly, there is a targeted method that can be used to track down VPN users. This is known as a time correlation attack, which is fortunately easy to avoid if you stick to zero-log VPN providers. Keeping no logs is considered the holy grail of VPNs and is why we recommend torrenters to choose a service that includes this assurance. 

Concealing your IP address also has security benefits. When torrenting via peer-to-peer, you are potentially advertising your home’s IP address to everybody else who is connected to the peer. If someone on that peer is a hacker, they could probe your IP address for open ports or for IoT devices to add to a botnet. Using a VPN ensures that fellow torrenters on the peer can’t single you out.

If you want to learn more about how a VPN can help, see our what is a VPN guide.

Can I use any VPN provider?

No. Not every VPN permits torrenting because it is resource-heavy and can have an impact on the cost of running their VPN servers. 

The more data that is downloaded, the more data that must be processed, and the server farms they rent their servers from charge them a lot more for the pleasure.

In addition, torrent downloads use up lots of bandwidth, which can slow those VPN servers down. This can reduce the overall performance and put a strain on the VPN network - making the servers get slow and laggy for other users. 

VPNs that permit torrenting keep zero logs so that none of their subscribers can ever be singled out for torrenting. And they run their service on a massive network of Tier 1 servers that are capable of handling huge amounts of data at lightning-fast speeds. 

In fact, the very best VPNs set aside specific servers for torrenting and use load balancing to ensure that users are automatically connected less congested servers – helping the VPN to run smoothly for all its subscribers.


Which VPN should I use for torrenting?

There's a lot that needs to be considered when deciding which VPN to use when torrenting. To help, we have compiled a list of our favourite VPNs to use when torrenting, where we also cover the main considerations you need to make before committing to one.

See torrent VPNs

Check you’re using the right seed

Avoiding malware and other exploits is a primary concern for most torrenters. The good news is that there are several ways of spotting and staying away from malicious seeds. 

Got seeds?

The easiest way to ensure you download what you are actually looking for is to search for torrents that are popular. If a torrent has a lot of seeders, it is likely to be the real deal. 

seeds

Add a little flair

Using popular torrent repositories like EZTV or YTS can help you find what you are after quickly and safely. These kinds of popular websites use ‘flair’ systems to highlight verified users - which makes it easier to ascertain whether a seed is genuine or not.

On ThePirateBay, for example, moderators highlight users who regularly upload content that is free of malware by giving them a Trusted tag. The VIP tag is similar but is simply there to denote a seeder who is extremely trustworthy. 

torrent trusted tag

The ‘Trusted’ tag is a pink skull and the ‘VIP’ tag is a green skull. However, the ‘flair’ will look different depending on the site that you use. Make sure to do some research and learn what’s what to find highlighted users on the website you intend to use!

Check the comments

Torrent sites allow users to leave comments. Checking these is a great way to figure out whether a seed is malevolent. Torrents that are good will usually be praised by other downloaders, making it easy to tell which one is worth your time. 

comment on a torrent positive

To find the comments, start by searching for what you are after. Next, click on the torrent seed that takes your fancy, and scroll down to read what people are saying! 

torrent on a torrent negative

Finally, always remember to be on the lookout for trolls, who may either overly praise a rubbish seed or criticize a legitimate seed without a genuine reason.

Install a good antivirus

Having good antivirus software is just generally good practice when surfing the web. Hackers like to hide malware inside of torrent downloads, easily infecting the users who download them. Cybercriminals understand that hiding malware in a torrent file can allow them to infect huge numbers of people, and this is just about the easiest way to force exploits onto victims.

Ransomware, Trojans and other nasties

Being caught by an exploit can allow hackers to take control of your device. Ransomware infections enable the attacker to take your system hostage, encrypting it until you pay them in Bitcoin. 

Trojans, on the other hand, let the hacker commandeer your device’s microphone or camera to snoop on you, steal the data in your phone, install keyloggers to steal your passwords and financial information, and steal all your files, photos, and contacts.

Trojans are often downloaded by unwitting people torrenting computer programs, as the user is attempting to download an executable (.exe) file. In this format, it is easy to swap out the expected program with a virus, making the potential ramifications of downloading from torrent sites quite scary.

Does my file size look big in this?

Avoiding .exe and .bat files entirely is difficult, even if it is recommended to steer clear from them where possible. Fortunately, you can usually spot fake installers by checking the size of the download against the size of the genuine installer. Preferably it should be identical, but there can be some variances depending on the version or upload. If the difference is noticeable, however, this is a sign that the file is probably not what you wanted.


Be aware

Checking file sizes is not a foolproof method of spotting an infected torrent file. Hackers are getting smarter by the day. For total protection you need a good and up to date antivirus and anti-malware program. To help, we have listed some recommended antivirus programmes that you can use when torrenting.

Find the best antivirus

Download to a sandbox environment

This is an elevated security precaution that most people will probably not need to take. However, if you do often download executable files (computer programs) from torrent repositories then it is a very good idea to protect yourself in this way.

Your sandbox, your rules!

Downloading files to a sandboxed environment ensures that malicious files will not infect your entire machine if you accidentally download a virus or malware. You can then check the file is legit before installing it onto your main machine. Sandboxie is a great tool that allows you to create a sandboxed environment on your PC. 

cartoon of laptop in sandbox

Alternatively, you may prefer to install a full Virtual Machine (using Parallels or VirtualBox, for example) and check the file there first. To do so, simply download the torrent onto your VM, use VirusTotal to scan the file, and if VirusTotal gives it the all-clear, then run the file in the VM to make sure it is ok. If the file is clean, and the installer works fine in the VM, you are fine to move the program over onto your real operating system.

Join a torrent community

Private trackers are closed-door torrenting communities designed to preserve the quality of torrents. When you join one of these communities, you will be amazed by the quality of the torrents because each is carefully hand-picked using a strict moderation process.

Most of the time, private trackers can only be accessed with an invitation. This can be tricky because these communities are often one-in-one-out. As a result, existing members guard their spot jealously and rarely quit the community. 

Nowadays, there are several well-known private torrenting communities that are highly sought-after. These include PassThePopcorn, IPTorrents, Demonoid, and Zeronet. 

If you do manage to get an invitation to one of these, you will suddenly be in an environment where you can trust the quality of the torrents. This will make you far less likely to come across malicious files, viruses, malware, spam, and Trojans. 

How do you get into one of these sought-after torrenting clubs?

One option is to hang out on popular torrent boards like /r/torrent on Reddit. Spending time on this kind of board and making friends with other users could eventually get you an invitation. However, you will need to be an active member of the community and build trust over time, rather than simply turn up and start demanding an invitation. 

It's all about that ratio

It is worth bearing in mind that once you do manage to join a closed-door community, there will be certain rules. Most of them require you to maintain an up/down ratio, so you will need to upload data as well as download it, helping other members of the community by seeding the downloads they want.

Most communities demand that you maintain at least a 1:1 ratio, which is where you download the same amount as you upload. Admittedly, when you join a new community, it can be hard to manage this instantly. The good news is that all new users are given a grace period to achieve this equilibrium. 

When you do manage to sort out your ratio, you will be far less likely to get booted from the community. So, if you are failing to sort out your ratio, you may want to consider giving a donation to the community (for the cost of servers, etc).  However, maintaining a good ratio is better, and will even gain you perks such as VIP status and an upgraded account on the tracker with faster download speeds. 

How to improve your ratio

To make sure you achieve the golden ratio, start out by downloading some smaller files that you believe may be popular. Once you have these files, other people who want to download them will require you to upload it to them - which will set you on your way! 

To the same ends, it is a good idea to download newly released torrents quickly; if you are one of the first to download, you are more likely to have success in seeding them back to other community members. Also, be sure to steer away from zero leech torrents, you want popular files that other people want to download; as this will help you to achieve your 1:1 ratio.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. Ray is currently rated #7 VPN and #7 internet privacy authority by Agilience.com.

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