Cryptocurrencies are a bit like the Kardashians: You’ve probably heard of them, but you may not really be sure why. They’re completely over-exposed in the media, but still somehow shrouded in mystery. To help you keep up with the cryptocurrencies, we’re answering some of the most-asked questions.
A cryptocurrency is exchanged in the digital world using cryptography, which is essentially a system of secret messages. In other words: There’s no physical coin or bill to put in your wallet—it’s all virtual. But cryptocurrencies do have a dollar value (and they can fluctuate wildly on a day-to-day basis).
The cryptography is how the creation and transactions of units is controlled and kept secure, and all the transactions are public. There’s no central banking system, like the Federal Reserve, managing it—nobody’s in charge, and everybody is in charge.
Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency to be fully implemented and has the most name recognition, but there are more than 1,000 different ones out there. Other popular types include Ripple, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash, Cardano and Litecoin.
As with gold or diamonds, if you want to uncover new cryptocurrency units, you have to roll up your sleeves and dig—albeit through virtual terrain. Instead of pickaxes, pans and shovels, the tools required for cryptocurrency mining include the right computer setup, software and high-level math. Miners will run software, for example, to try and solve the algorithms needed to verify Bitcoin transactions and add them to the public ledger. Once they do, they're rewarded with bitcoins for their efforts.
Different currencies call for different approaches, which can change over time. For example, as Bitcoin gained in popularity and value, mining it has required an increasing amount of computational and electrical power. While you once could’ve used a personal computer, now entire mining operations with networks of specialized hardware are on the job. Other currencies can still be mined on a smaller scale.
A blockchain is the automatically and constantly updated public ledger of all cryptocurrency transactions. The blockchain can be shared with anyone in the network, but cannot be altered—making it the key to operating without a Fed-like centralized system at the helm. (The Bitcoin blockchain is public and can be accessed by anyone. Check out blockchain.info.)
Many people think that blockchain technology is the core of the cryptocurrency craze and perhaps the real thing worth investing in. Companies like Microsoft, IBM and JPMorgan are developing and integrating blockchain systems into their businesses.
The price of Bitcoin, like stocks, is largely speculative. Unlike gold, it does not have intrinsic value, and unlike U.S. dollars, no government grants it legal tender status. So it’s really only worth anything because someone’s willing to pay that price for it (with the belief that someone else is willing to pay more). And many other cryptocurrencies are priced in part based on Bitcoin’s value.
Just like when investing in individual stocks, you risk losing your money if your cryptocurrency of choice tanks. Unlike with individual stocks, you have no real way of evaluating the odds of your investment doing well, and we have little historical data to analyze broader trends—making it tough to determine a fair price to pay or when it’s time to sell.
Plus, with such minimal regulatory oversight (which is the appeal for some), cryptocurrency accounts are not protected by the FDIC. So this area is rife with fraudsters looking to sell you a crypto-scam.
(Editor's note: This page has been updated to clarify the mining process.)
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Only what you can afford to lose. The potential rewards of cryptocurrency investing are inarguably high. For example, Bitcoin went from about $800 in January 2017 to $19,000 within a year, according to crypto-news site CoinDesk.
But the risks are just as steep. Consider Bitcoin’s drop the week before Christmas, from around $19,000 on December 18 to under $14,000 on the 22nd. Though it recovered to more than $17,000 on January 6, it’d fallen again to about $13,000 by January 11. That kind of volatility should be limited to a small portion of your portfolio—the part you’d be okay never seeing again.
You can directly purchase digital currencies via exchanges like Coinbase and Bitstamp. You can also try connecting directly with individual sellers through LocalBitcoins.com. (Check out Buy Bitcoin Worldwide to see other options.)
Or you can go the fund route with Bitwise HOLD 10 Private Index Fund if your income and net worth qualify you as an “accredited investor.” Soon, you may be able to invest in a cryptocurrency through an exchange-traded fund (ETF). Both Cboe Global Market and the New York Stock Exchange have filed to list cryptocurrency-related ETFs.
In your digital wallet. Many cryptocurrency exchanges offer a wallet you can connect to your regular bank account. You can also find other apps, like Bither, ArcBit and Green Address, that focus on Bitcoin storage. (Coinbase will store the cryptocurrencies you purchase through the platform for you.)
For added security, you can consider a hardware wallet like the Bitcoin options from Trezor, Digital Bitbox and KeepKey. These flashdrive-looking devices allow you to take your cryptocurrency offline and protect it from vulnerabilities inherent with the web.
The list of businesses that accept such payments is limited, but growing. It includes Overstock.com, Subway, Microsoft and Bloomberg.com, among others. (See an extensive list on 99bitcoins.com).
You can also be creative and barter to put your cryptocurrency to practical use. For example, the first real-world Bitcoin transaction, according to popular Internet lore, was in 2010, when programmer Laszlo Hanyecz posted in a forum that he’d give 10,000 bitcoins (now worth well over $100 million) to anyone who brought him pizza. Someone took the offer and paid $25 for two Papa John’s pizzas to be delivered to Hanyecz.
No doubt, all this cryptocurrency stuff sounds like it’s straight out of a sci-fi story. But we are living in the future. Remember that once not too long ago, people were balking at the idea of e-mail, e-commerce and social media. And companies that were slow to adopt advancing technologies went the way of the Dodo. (Hey, Blockbuster and Borders.)
The bottom line is: Bitcoin and its ilk are increasingly popular investments, as well as forms of payment—and in some way, cryptocurrency is here to stay. Whether you literally buy into it or not is up to you and your risk tolerance.