Confused about cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin and Ethereum? You’re not alone. Before you use or invest in cryptocurrency, know what makes it different from cash and other payment methods, and how to spot cryptocurrency scams or detect cryptocurrency accounts that may be compromised.
What To Know About Cryptocurrency
Cryptocurrency is a type of digital currency that generally only exists electronically. There is no physical coin or bill unless you use a service that allows you to cash in cryptocurrency for a physical token. You usually exchange cryptocurrency with someone online, with your phone or computer, without using an intermediary like a bank. Bitcoin and Ether are well-known cryptocurrencies, but there are many different cryptocurrency brands, and new ones are continuously being created.
How do people use cryptocurrency?
People use cryptocurrency for quick payments, to avoid transaction fees that regular banks charge, or because it offers some anonymity. Others hold cryptocurrency as an investment, hoping the value goes up.
You can buy cryptocurrency through an online exchange platform. Some people earn cryptocurrency through a complex process called “mining,” which requires advanced computer equipment to solve highly complicated math puzzles.
Cryptocurrency is stored in a digital wallet, which can be online, on your computer, or on an external hard drive. But if something unexpected happens — your online exchange platform goes out of business, you send cryptocurrency to the wrong person, you lose the password to your digital wallet, or your digital wallet is stolen or compromised — you’re likely to find that no one can step in to help you recover your funds. And, because you typically transfer cryptocurrency directly without an intermediary like a bank, there is often no one to turn to if you encounter a problem.
There are important differences between cryptocurrency and traditional currency.
Cryptocurrency accounts are not backed by a government. Cryptocurrency accounts are not insured by a government like U.S. dollars deposited into a bank account. If you store cryptocurrency with a third-party company, and the company goes out of business or is hacked, the government has no obligation to step in and help get your money back.
Cryptocurrency values change constantly. The value of a cryptocurrency can vary rapidly, even changing by the hour. It depends on many factors, including supply and demand. An investment that’s worth thousands of dollars today might be worth only hundreds tomorrow. And, if the value goes down, there’s no guarantee it will go up again.
If you’re thinking about paying with cryptocurrency, know that it’s different from paying with a credit card or other traditional payment methods.
Cryptocurrency payments do not come with legal protections. Credit cards and debit cards have legal protections if something goes wrong. For example, if you need to dispute a purchase, your credit card company has a process to help you get your money back. Cryptocurrencies typically do not.
Cryptocurrency payments typically are not reversible. Once you pay with cryptocurrency, you can usually only get your money back if the person you paid sends it back. Before you buy something with cryptocurrency, know the seller’s reputation, where the seller is located, and how to contact someone if there is a problem. Confirm these details by doing some research before you pay.
Some information about your transactions will likely be public. People talk about cryptocurrency transactions as anonymous. But the truth is not that simple. Some cryptocurrencies record some transaction details on a public ledger, called a “blockchain.” That’s a public list of every cryptocurrency transaction — both the payment and receipt sides. Depending on the cryptocurrency, the information added to the blockchain can include details like the transaction amount and the sender’s and recipient’s wallet addresses. A wallet address is a long string of numbers and letters linked to your digital wallet. Even though you can use a fake name to register your digital wallet, it’s possible to use transaction and wallet information to identify the people involved in a specific transaction. And when you buy something from a seller who collects other information about you, like a shipping address, that information can be used to identify you later on.