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Investors are more interested than ever in cryptocurrency. Criminals are too.
Reports of cryptocurrency crimes have increased 312% per year on average since 2016, according to a report from Crypto Head, a cryptocurrency news outlet that used Federal Trade Commission data to analyze cryptocurrency crime trends in recent years. These crimes can include everything from hackers stealing investors’ coins to people falling for scams related to crypto investing.
A cold wallet — an offline device not connected to the internet— is the safest place to keep your crypto investment, according to experts.
Bitcoin has the most crime reports of any cryptocurrency, which makes sense since it’s also the oldest and most-widely held crypto. Beyond digital crimes, Bitcoin’s safety as an investment is often questioned thanks to the frequency and scale of its value fluctuations.
Despite an increase in fraud and theft, many experts tout the safety of Bitcoin investments — at least in terms of cybersecurity if not investment stability — thanks to secure blockchain technology. So, is investing in Bitcoin safe? Here’s what you need to know about Bitcoin’s safety as an asset and keeping your cryptocurrency secure if you invest.
Bitcoin Is Volatile
First things first: The money you put into Bitcoin is not safe from value fluctuations.
Bitcoin is a volatile investment. If you’re looking for a “safe” investment with guaranteed returns, then don’t invest in Bitcoin — or any cryptocurrencies for that matter. Just over the past few months, the price of one Bitcoin has fluctuated between $30,000 and $60,000. Bitcoin isn’t the only volatile cryptocurrency, and other, smaller coins may be even riskier.
“Understand that these are very volatile investments, so if big fluctuations cause you to lose sleep, this isn’t the space for you,” says Dan Herron, a CFP with Elemental Wealth Advisors in San Luis Obispo, California.
Experts recommend keeping any cryptocurrency investments to less than 5% of your portfolio for exactly that reason — and to make sure you’ve got a solid conventional retirement investment plan in the first place. It’s also recommended you have an emergency fund and pay down any high-interest debts before you put any money into Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency.
Cryptocurrency Crimes and Cybersecurity Risks
The biggest security concern for many people when it comes to Bitcoin investing — like any other digital activity — is the risk of hacking and fraud. Cryptocurrency crimes are on the rise, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission, and resulted in a median loss of $1,900 per report between October 2020 and March 2021.
Often, reported crypto crimes involve scammers requesting payment in cryptocurrency, or sending unsolicited offers to help you make money or increase your holdings, according to the FTC. “One sure sign of a scam is anyone who says you have to pay by cryptocurrency,” the agency says. You should also avoid any unsolicited offers related to crypto; do your own research and buy your coins yourself using a reputable crypto exchange.
Other types of scams to look out for
Initial coin offerings (ICOs) for fake cryptocurrencies
When a cryptocurrency is offered to investors before it’s launched to the market, it’s called an ICO (similar to a new stock’s IPO). But sometimes these new coin offerings can be fabricated, leading investors to put their money in a cryptocurrency that doesn’t actually exist.
Always research any cryptocurrency before you invest. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Read the project’s white paper and check out the founders as part of your research. For most investors — and especially beginners — it’s smart to stick to established, popular coins like Bitcoin or Ethereum.
Crypto pump and dump schemes
A small group of investors may pump a lot of money into a specific crypto, falsely inflating the price while convincing private investors to also invest. Then the original investors sell their shares for a profit before the price falls again. This type of scheme exists for more traditional investments, too.
Again, if an investment seems too good to be true, it probably is. Watch out for coins that have risen a lot in value without any clear reason why, the Crypto Head report recommends. This may be a sign of a pump and dump scheme.
Crypto Wallet Theft
Hackers can gain access to individuals’ crypto wallets or breach entire cryptocurrency exchanges to steal their holdings.
Cryptocurrency exchanges and third parties offer storage for your coins through hot wallets, which are secure, but still online (and therefore still susceptible to hacking). Crypto held on an exchange or in a wallet is not FDIC-insured like money in the bank. Make sure you trade and hold your crypto on a platform that offers robust security measures — including keeping a significant amount of holdings in its own cold storage and two-factor authentication for users. Some exchanges may even have private insurance policies in case of theft or hacking.
For the best protection against online fraud, many experts recommend cold storage through an offline device not connected to the internet, similar to a USB drive. But even cold storage comes with risks, like the possibility of losing access to your investment completely if you forget your password.
Bitcoin Security vs. Privacy
While you can take measures to secure your crypto holdings from hacking and theft, Bitcoin may not be any more effective at keeping your personal information private than any other traditional investment.
While trades you make in Bitcoin may be harder to trace than credit card purchases or direct bank withdrawals, Bitcoin transactions are not private. Bitcoin trades are tied to a hash code — a string of letters and numbers — that are unique to you, says Ollie Leech, learn editor at CoinDesk, a leading cryptocurrency news outlet.
“You’re really not anonymous, more like pseudonymous,” says Galen Moore, director of data and indexes at CoinDesk. While your activity isn’t directly tied to personal details like your social security number, the blockchain is public and there are ways that people can identify you.
But even though Bitcoin transactions aren’t private, that doesn’t mean every user can see exactly how much everyone else has bought or sold.
“In order to download the Bitcoin blockchain you would need massive, massive, computing capacity, like a supercomputer,” says Danial. “The day-to-day average Joe can’t go in and see what transactions are happening in the Bitcoin blockchain.”
If you want total privacy when you transact, then neither Bitcoin nor Ethereum — the second largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization — are for you. Other smaller cryptocurrencies are designed for this total privacy, though experts recommend avoiding these lesser known cryptos as an investment.
(READ MORE: Ethereum: What You Should Know Before You Invest)
“With Bitcoin and Ethereum, all those transaction details being open is part of how the network is maintained as people watch,” says Moore. The open system helps the blockchain retain accountability.