If you’re thinking about crypto, one of the first things you’ll want to do is get yourself a good wallet.
Topping the several important things a new cryptocurrency investor needs to think about is security. Rightfully so. Cryptocurrency is indeed subject to all kinds of fraud, theft, and phishing attacks, just like the credentials and accounts we keep online.
But here’s the catch. Lost or stolen cryptocurrency is terrifically difficult to recover. By and large, it doesn’t enjoy the same protections and regulations as traditional currency and financial transactions. For example, you can always call your bank or credit card company to report theft or contest a fraudulent charge. Not the case with crypto. With that, you’ll absolutely need a safe place to secure it. Likewise, in the U.S. many banks are FDIC insured, which protects depositors if the bank fails. Again, not so with crypto.
So, when it comes to cryptocurrency, security is everything.
What makes crypto so attractive to hackers?
Cryptocurrency theft offers hackers an immediate payoff. It’s altogether different from, say, hacking the database of a Fortune 500 company. With a data breach, a hacker may round up armloads of personal data and information, yet it takes additional steps for them to translate those stolen records into money. With cryptocurrency theft, the dollars shift from the victim to the crook in milliseconds. It’s like digital pickpocketing. As you can guess, that makes cryptocurrency a big target.
And that’s where your wallet will come in, a place where you store the digital credentials associated with the cryptocurrency you own. The issue is doing it securely. Let’s take a look at the different wallets out there and then talk about how you can secure them.
Hot wallets and cold wallets for crypto
Broadly, there are two general categories of wallets. First, let’s look at what these wallets store.
A wallet contains public and private “keys” that are used to conduct transactions. The public key often takes the form of an address, one that anyone can see and then use to send cryptocurrency. The private key is exactly that. Highly complex and taking many forms that range from multi-word phrases to strings of code, it’s your unique key that proves your ownership of your cryptocurrency and that allows you to spend and send crypto. Needless to say, never share your private key.
With that, there are two ways to store your keys—in a hot wallet or a cold wallet.
Hot wallets for cryptocurrency
As you can see, the benefit of a hot wallet is that you can load it up with cryptocurrency, ready for spending. However, it’s the riskiest place to store cryptocurrency because it’s connected to the internet, making it a target for hacks and attacks.
In addition to that, a hot wallet is connected to a cryptocurrency exchange, which makes the transfer of cryptocurrencies possible. The issue with that is all cryptocurrency exchanges are not created equal, particularly when it comes to security. Some of the lesser-established exchanges may not utilize strong protocols, likely making a target for attack. Even the more established and trusted exchanges have fallen victim to attacks—where crooks have walked away with millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars.
Cold wallets for cryptocurrency
While the funds in cold wallets are far less liquid, they’re far more secure because they’re not connected to the internet. In this way, cold wallets are more vault-like and suitable for long-term storage of larger sums of funds. But cold wallets place a great deal of responsibility on the holder. They must be stored in a physically secure place, and be backed up, because if you lose that one device or printout that contains your cryptocurrency info, you lose the cryptocurrency altogether. Within the cold wallet category, there are a few different types:
1. Purpose-built cryptocurrency storage devices
Several manufacturers make storage devices specifically designed to store cryptocurrency, complete with specific features for security, durability, and compatibility with many (yet not always all) of the different cryptocurrencies on the market. An online search will turn up several options, so doing your homework here will be very important—such as which devices have the best track record for security, which devices are the most reliable overall, and which ones are compatible with the crypto you wish to keep.
2. Hard drives on a computer or laptop
Storing cryptocurrency information on a computer or laptop that’s disconnected from the internet (also known as “air-gapped”) is a storage method that’s been in place for some time. However, because computers and laptops are complex devices, they may be less secure than a simpler, purpose-built cryptocurrency device. In short, there are more ways to compromise a computer or laptop with malware that a determined hacker can use to steal information in some rather surprising ways. (Like noise from a compromised computer fan passing information in a sort of Morse Code or generating electromagnetic signals on a compromised computer that nearby devices can use to skim information.)
3. Paper wallets
Ah, good old paper. Write down a code and keep it secure. Simple, right? In truth, creating a paper wallet can be one of the most involved methods of all the cold storage options out there. Bitcoin offers a step-by-step walkthrough of the process that you can see for yourself. Once done, though, you’ll have a piece of paper with a public address for loading cryptocurrency into your paper cold wallet, along with a private key. One note: Bitcoin and others recommend never reusing a paper cold wallet once it’s connected to a hot wallet. You should go through the process of creating a new cold paper wallet each time.
4. Physical coins for cryptocurrency
Physical coins are a special case and are relatively new on the scene. They’re a physical coin minted with a tamper-resistant sticker that indicates the actual value of the coin. Like other methods of cold wallet storage, this calls for keeping it in a safe place, because it’s pretty much like a wad of cash. And like cash, if it’s stolen, it’s gone for good. Also note that a cryptocurrency holder must work with a third party to mint and deliver the coin, which has its own costs and risks involved.
Securing your cryptocurrency wallet
With that look at wallets, let’s see what it takes to secure them. It may seem like there’s plenty to do here. That’s because there is, which goes to show just how much responsibility falls on the shoulders of the cryptocurrency holder. Of course, this is your money we’re talking about, so let’s dive into the details.
1. Back up your wallet
Whatever form your storage takes, back it up. And back it up again. Cryptocurrency holders should make multiple copies just in case one is lost, destroyed, or otherwise inaccessible. For example, one story that’s made the rounds is of a IT engineer in the UK who accidentally threw away an old hard drive with his cryptocurrency key on it, one that held 7,500 bitcoins, worth millions of dollars. Redundancy is key. Back up the entire wallet right away and then often after that.
2. Store your wallet(s) securely
With redundant backups in place, store them in places that are physically secure. It’s not uncommon for crypto holders to use fireproof safes and safe deposit boxes at banks for this purpose, which only highlights the earlier point that a wallet is as good as cash in many ways.
3. Use online protection software
This will help prevent malware from stealing crypto, whether or not your device is connected to the internet. Comprehensive online protection software will give you plenty of other benefits as well, including identity theft monitoring and strong password management, two things that can help you protect your investments, and yourself, even further.
4. Update your operating system, apps, and devices
Updates often address security issues, ones that hackers will of course try to exploit. Keep everything current and set automatic updates wherever they are available so that you have the latest and greatest.
5. Make use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) where possible
Just as your bank and other financial accounts offer MFA, do the same here with your crypto. Some extra security-conscious crypto investors will purchase a device for this specific purpose for yet greater protection, such as a separate phone with texting capability. This keeps their crypto transactions separate from the multitude of other things they do on their everyday smartphone, effectively putting up a wall between these two different digital worlds.
6. Keep your investments to yourself
Two things fall under this category. One, the less you say about the crypto investments you make, the less word gets around, which can help keep hackers out of the loop. Particularly on social media! Two, consider setting up a unique email account that you only use for crypto. The less you associate your crypto accounts with other financial accounts like your banking and online payment apps, the more difficult it is to compromise several accounts in one fell swoop.
7. Watch out for phishing scams
Just like hackers send phishing emails with an eye on accessing your bank accounts, credit cards, and so on, they’ll do much the same to get at your crypto accounts. The target may be different, that being your crypto, but the attack is very much the same. An email will direct you to a hacker’s website, using some sort of phony pretense, get-rich-quick-scheme, or scare tactic. Once there, they’ll ask for private key information and then simply steal the funds. And it’s not just email. Hackers have used online ads to phish for victims as well.
Crypto: security is on you
As you can see, these security measures rely almost exclusively on you. If something happens to you, that could make recovering your funds a real problem. Consider reaching out to someone you trust and let them know where you’re storing your wallets and information. That way, you’ll have some assistance ready in the event of an emergency or issue.
The very things that define cryptocurrency—the anonymity of ownership, the lack of banking institutions, the light or non-existent regulation—all have major security implications. Add in the fact that you’re your own safety net here and it’s easy to see that crypto is something that requires plenty of planning and careful through before diving into. Getting knowledgeable about security, how you’ll protect your crypto, should absolutely top your list before investing.