Confused about cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin or Ether (associated with 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 is cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrency is a type of digital currency that generally exists only electronically. You usually use your phone, computer, or a cryptocurrency ATM to buy cryptocurrency. Bitcoin and Ether are well-known cryptocurrencies, but there are many different cryptocurrencies, and new ones keep being created.
How do people use cryptocurrency?
People use cryptocurrency for many reasons — quick payments, to avoid transaction fees that traditional banks charge, or because it offers some anonymity. Others hold cryptocurrency as an investment, hoping the value goes up.
How do you get cryptocurrency?
You can buy cryptocurrency through an exchange, an app, a website, or a cryptocurrency ATM. Some people earn cryptocurrency through a complex process called “mining,” which requires advanced computer equipment to solve highly complicated math puzzles.
Where and how do you store cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrency is stored in a digital wallet, which can be online, on your computer, or on an external hard drive. A digital wallet has a wallet address, which is usually a long string of numbers and letters. If something happens to your wallet or your cryptocurrency funds — like 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.
How is cryptocurrency different from U.S. Dollars?
Because cryptocurrency exists only online, there are important differences between cryptocurrency and traditional currency, like U.S. dollars.
- Cryptocurrency accounts are not backed by a government. Cryptocurrency held in accounts is not insured by a government like U.S. dollars deposited into an FDIC insured bank account. If something happens to your account or cryptocurrency funds — for example, the company that provides storage for your wallet 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 change rapidly, even changing by the hour. And the amount of the change can be significant. It depends on many factors, including supply and demand. Cryptocurrencies tend to be more volatile than more traditional investments, such as stocks and bonds. 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.
Paying With Cryptocurrency?
There are many ways that paying with cryptocurrency is 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 come with any such protections.
- 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, 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. Cryptocurrency transactions will typically be recorded on a public ledger, called a “blockchain.” That’s a public list of every cryptocurrency transaction — both on the payment and receipt sides. Depending on the blockchain, the information added to the blockchain can include details like the transaction amount, as well as the sender’s and recipient’s wallet addresses. It’s sometimes 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 also be used to identify you later on.
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