Have you ever tried to visit a website or use an online service, only to be met with frustrating errors and glacially slow speeds? There‘s a good chance you were caught in the crossfire of a dangerous new breed of cyber attack – the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
DDoS attacks are on the rise, with hackers using vicious new tactics to overwhelm networks and knock sites and services offline. But how exactly do these attacks work? And can a virtual private network (VPN) help protect you from their disruption?
In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll give you an in-depth look at DDoS attacks from all angles. You‘ll learn what they are, how hackers execute them, telltale warning signs, and most importantly – how to guard against them using a VPN and other smart security tactics. Let‘s get started!
What Is a DDoS Attack Exactly?
A distributed denial-of-service attack is a destructive form of cyber assault that aims to make an online service unavailable to users. DDoS attacks achieve this by artificially overloading networks and servers with a tsunami of bogus traffic.
DDoS assaults leverage botnets – massive networks of malware-compromised computers and devices that can be remotely controlled by hackers. By flooding targets from many distributed sources, DDoS attacks bypass many conventional defenses.
According to cybersecurity firm NETSCOUT, DDoS attacks increased a stunning 50% in 2020 alone. Both the size and frequency of attacks are rising as hackers develop nastier new techniques.
DDoS attacks are sharply increasing in both frequency and size in recent years. Image source
Some of the most common DDoS vectors include:
- Volumetric Attacks – Volumetric DDoS attacks aim to consume all available bandwidth, overwhelming networks with colossal amounts of senseless traffic. Tactics include UDP floods, ICMP floods, and other spoofed packet floods.
- TCP State-Exhaustion Attacks – These attacks bombard servers with partial TCP handshake requests that use up connection resources. SYN floods are a common example.
- Application Layer Attacks – By targeting applications with malformed requests and payloads, hackers can easily tie up processing and memory resources.
- Multi-Vector Attacks – Savvy attackers combine multiple volumetric, TCP, and application layer attack vectors for maximum disruption. Defending becomes exponentially harder.
The impact of DDoS attacks runs the gamut from sluggish speeds to outright denial of service. Websites getting hit with 100+ Gbps floods often go completely offline. Even small businesses can suffer losses of $10,000-$25,000 per hour during an attack.
DDoS vs. DoS Attacks – What‘s the Difference?
Closely related to DDoS assaults are Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks. While both have the same end goal of disrupting access to networks and applications, their methods differ:
- DDoS – Short for distributed denial-of-service. Involves barraging targets from thousands of remote botnet devices spread across many networks. Difficult to block.
- DoS – Launched from a single infected source against one or more targets. Easier to trace and block than DDoS since traffic originates from one place.
DoS attacks are more limited in scale and impact than massive coordinated DDoS botnets can achieve. But DoS can still be an effective means for solo hackers to annoy and temporarily silence specific sites or services.
Here‘s a quick rundown comparing the two:
|Scale||Massive, 100s of 1000s of bots||Limited, single source|
|Impact||Disruptive, hard to mitigate||Annoying, easier to block|
|Targets||Large networks and sites||Specific IPs and applications|
|Duration||Hours to days||Minutes to hours|
While not considered as severe as DDoS, DoS attacks can still interrupt connectivity and availability of networks and sites. But their single point of origin makes blocking them simpler in most cases.
How Can I Tell If I‘m Under a DDoS Attack?
The hallmark of a DDoS attack is abnormally slow network speeds and connectivity issues that seem to come out of the blue. Some common indicators you may be under assault include:
- Your website or application running extremely slowly or not at all
- Spike in bandwidth consumption and network traffic
- Users receiving 503 and other server error messages
- Being unable to access accounts and services like email or banking
- General sluggish internet and WiFi speeds
- Disconnections and trouble reconnecting to networks
- Unavailability of specific sites and services
If many users are impacted at once, a DDoS attack is likely disrupting connectivity to a particular network or website. For individual issues, a DoS attack could be targeting your specific connection.
Quickly identifying an attack is key to mitigating damage and initiating defenses. Monitoring tools can automatically detect abnormal traffic levels indicative of DDoS.
Top VPN Services for DDoS Protection
VPNs are a great way to protect yourself from the havoc of DDoS attacks. By encrypting your traffic and hiding your real IP address, VPNs prevent hackers from directly targeting you. Connecting through a VPN network also circumvents congestion created by floods of junk data.
Here are five top-rated VPN providers offering advanced protections against DDoS:
1. NordVPN – This Panama-based VPN stalwart has over 5,300 servers worldwide, advanced security features, and integrated DDoS protection to absorb malicious floods.
2. Surfshark – Surfshark operates 3,200+ servers out of the British Virgin Islands and offers unlimited device support, a kill switch, and private DNS to evade DDoS disruptions.
3. ExpressVPN – With blazing speeds, strong encryption, and an army of 3,000+ global servers, ExpressVPN has the capacity to withstand massive DDoS attacks.
4. CyberGhost – Romania-based CyberGhost boasts strong security and fast speeds to circumvent DDoS congestion. Choose from over 7,400 servers in 90 countries.
5. ProtonVPN – Developed by scientists who met at CERN, ProtonVPN has a strict no logs policy and technical chops to route around DDoS attacks.
How Can a VPN Defend Against DDoS?
Virtual private networks combat DDoS in a few key ways:
- Masking your real IP – By hiding your IP behind that of the VPN server, attackers lose their target and can‘t flood your direct connection.
- Encrypting traffic – Encryption disguises the contents, destination, and origin of your traffic. Not knowing where to target limits DDoS damage.
- Bypassing congestion – VPNs provide new pathways around congested or blocked networks under siege by DDoS.
- Absorbing floods – Large VPN providers have massive networks that help absorb and withstand high volumes of DDoS traffic by distributing it.
VPNs make launching an effective DDoS attack orders of magnitude more difficult. For optimal protection, use in conjunction with firewalls, patched systems, and other security best practices.
Expert Tips to Prevent DDoS Attacks
Using a VPN is a great start, but a layered defense is the best way to minimize your DDoS risk. Here are some additional pro tips to keep you off the radar of attackers:
- Deploy a firewall and WAF – Hardware and software firewalls filter out malicious traffic, while a web application firewall (WAF) protects websites and apps specifically. Used together they provide layered security.
- Monitor traffic – Actively monitoring bandwidth usage and network activity makes catching anomalies from possible DDoS easier.
- Disable UPnP – Prevent malware from poking holes in your firewall by disabling Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) on your router.
- Update all devices – Make sure to update routers, firewalls, VPN clients and all other devices and software to close vulnerabilities.
- Limit open ports – Only open necessary ports on your router and firewall. Limiting exposure reduces potential DDoS vectors.
- Use a static IP – Static IP addresses don‘t change and can be easier to button up with access controls compared to dynamic IPs.
- Have an emergency plan – Develop a plan for responding to DDoS attacks so you can act quickly to minimize outage time.
No single tool prevents DDoS outright, but combining VPN protection with proactive precautions goes a long way toward keeping you safe.
Real-World Examples of Destructive DDoS Attacks
To understand the seriousness of the DDoS threat, it helps to look at some actual incidents. Here are two high-profile cases:
- GitHub DDoS Attack (2018) – GitHub was slammed by the largest ever recorded DDoS assault, sustaining traffic of 1.3 Tbps. The code repository was knocked offline for over 5 minutes before mitigating the malicious flood.
- Mirai Botnet Assault (2016) – An army of hijacked IoT devices powered by Mirai malware took down DNS provider Dyn with massive DDoS attacks exceeding 1 Tbps. Major sites including Twitter, Netflix, Reddit, and Spotify were collateral damage.
These examples illustrate how damaging DDoS can be, even to huge tech companies with substantial resources. Attackers are also going after smaller targets like game servers and individual Twitch streamers more than ever before.
FAQ About VPNs and DDoS Protection
Can a VPN completely block a DDoS attack?
No single tool can entirely prevent well-executed DDoS attacks. But VPN encryption and IP obfuscation make launching an effective flood exponentially more difficult, blunting or even blocking many common DDoS tactics.
How do VPNs help protect gaming networks from DDoS?
VPNs are essential for serious gamers. By encrypting traffic and masking IPs, gamers avoid getting directly flooded offline themselves or having their identities exposed through IP leaks. VPNs provide new pathways around congested game networks under DDoS siege as well.
What can I do if my site gets hit with a massive DDoS attack?
Contact your hosting provider immediately for help mitigating the attack. Switching IP addresses, blackholing traffic, or migrating to DDoS-hardened servers are common emergency steps. Engage a DDoS mitigation service for ongoing protection after the attack.
Does my VPN need special configuration for DDoS protection?
Most VPN providers have DDoS resilience baked into their infrastructure. But using kill switch and IPv6 leak protection features maximizes your security. Connecting to purpose-built gaming or streaming VPN servers also helps optimize protection.
How long do DDoS attacks normally last?
DDoS attacks can last anywhere from a few minutes to over 24 hours, depending on the attacker’s resources and motivations. Small hobbyist attacks may only last an hour or less. But nation-state and ideologically-driven attackers often sustain assaults for many hours or days.
Wrap Up: VPNs Are Key to Any DDoS Defense
Distributed denial-of-service attacks present a serious threat to businesses, organizations, and personal internet users alike. By flooding networks and servers with junk traffic, DDoS attacks can grind websites and services to a halt – costing victims big.
Defending against DDoS starts with awareness and vigilance. Monitoring for traffic anomalies provides early warning, while proactive security tactics like firewalls and patched systems build resilience. And VPNs play a crucial role as well.
By encrypting your online activity and hiding your true IP address, a quality VPN makes launching a targeted DDoS attack against you orders of magnitude more difficult. VPNs also bypass congestion on overloaded networks by providing new pathways.
No single solution provides absolute protection from DDoS. But used alongside other smart precautions, VPN services allow you to surf and game the web with confidence, knowing that DDoS attackers will have a much tougher time disrupting your connectivity.
So empower yourself against the rising DDoS threat and sign up with a trusted VPN provider today. Your smooth, uninterrupted internet experience is worth protecting!