After reaching a peak in price late 2017 and subsequently fading from popularity, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have experienced a more another significant surge through 2019 and 2020, surpassing their previous all-time highs. As this has taken place, so too have the number of publicized hacking events increased as well. Given that many investors are new to the system and may not know how to keep their investments secure, hackers are coming up with ingenious ways of stealing funds. Some of the most prominent thefts have been those that have taken place in plain sight: some hacks even blatantly reroute tokens bound for one wallet for another. The victims watch as their tokens are stolen away from them, with nothing they can do about it.

Key Takeaways

  • Users can lose bitcoin and other cryptocurrency tokens as a result of theft, computer failure, loss of access keys, and more.
  • Cold storage (or offline wallets) is one of the safest methods for holding bitcoin, as these wallets are not accessible via the Internet, but hot wallets are still convenient for some users.
  • Those interested in the safest storage should consider using a hardware wallet for all of their long-term Bitcoin and cryptocurrency storage.

Just the way we keep cash or cards in a physical wallet, bitcoins are also stored in a wallet—a digital wallet. The digital wallet can be hardware-based or web-based. The wallet can also reside on a mobile device, on a computer desktop, or kept safe by printing the private keys and addresses used for access on paper. But how safe are any of these digital wallets? The answer to this depends on how the user manages the wallet. Every wallet contains a set of private keys without which the bitcoin owner cannot access the currency. The biggest danger in bitcoin security is the individual user perhaps losing the private key or having the private key stolen. Without the private key, the user will never see her bitcoins again. Besides losing the private key, a user can also lose her bitcoin by computer malfunctions (crashing a hard drive), by hacking, or by physically losing a computer where the digital wallet resides.

Below, we'll take a look at some of the best ways to store bitcoin safely.

Hot Wallet

Online wallets are also known as “hot” wallets. Hot wallets are wallets that run on internet-connected devices like computers, phones, or tablets. This can create vulnerability because these wallets generate the private keys to your coins on these internet-connected devices. While a hot wallet can be very convenient in the way you are able to access and make transactions with your assets quickly, they also lack security.

This may sound far-fetched, but people who are not using enough security when using these hot wallets can have their funds stolen. This is not an infrequent occurrence and it can happen in a number of ways. As an example, boasting on a public forum like Reddit about how much Bitcoin you hold while you are using little to no security and storing it in a hot wallet would not be wise.

These wallets are meant to be used for small amounts of cryptocurrency. You could liken a hot wallet to a checking account. Conventional financial wisdom would say to hold only spending money in a checking account while the bulk of your money is in savings accounts or other investment accounts. The same could be said for hot wallets. Hot wallets encompass mobile, desktop, web, and most exchange custody wallets. 

It is important to note here that holding cryptocurrency in an exchange wallet is not the same as holding it in your personal wallet. Exchange wallets are custodial accounts provided by the exchange. The user of this wallet type is not the holder of the private key to the cryptocurrency that is held in this wallet. 

If an event were to occur where the exchange is hacked or your account becomes compromised, your funds would be lost. Cryptocurrency exchanges do not provide SIPC or FDIC insurance, making safe storage of cryptocurrencies especially important. The phrase “not your keys not your coin” is a heavily repeated concept within cryptocurrency forums. As mentioned previously, it is not wise to keep large amounts of cryptocurrency in any hot wallet, especially an exchange account. Instead, it is suggested that you withdraw the majority of funds to your own personal "cold" wallet (explained below). Exchange accounts include CoinbaseGeminiBinance, and many others.

While these wallets are connected to the internet, creating a potential vector of attack, they are still very useful for the ability to quickly make transactions or trade cryptocurrency.

Cold Wallet

The next type of wallet, and the safest option for storage, is cold wallets. The simplest description of a cold wallet is a wallet that is not connected to the internet and therefore stands a far lesser risk of being compromised. These wallets can also be referred to as offline wallets or hardware wallets. 

These wallets store a user’s address and private key on something that is not connected to the internet and typically come with software that works in parallel so that the user can view their portfolio without putting their private key at risk. 

Perhaps the most secure way to store cryptocurrency offline is via a paper wallet. A paper wallet is a cold wallet that you can generate off of certain websites. It then produces both public and private keys that you print out on a piece of paper. The ability to access cryptocurrency in these addresses is only possible if you have that piece of paper. Many people laminate these paper wallets and store them in safety deposit boxes at their bank or even in a safe in their home. Paper wallets have no corresponding user interface other than a piece of paper and the blockchain itself. 

A hardware wallet is typically a USB drive device that stores a user’s private keys securely. This has serious advantages over hot wallets as it is unaffected by viruses that could be on one’s computer because private keys never come in contact with your network-connected computer or potentially vulnerable software. These devices are also typically open-source, allowing the community to determine its safety rather than a company declaring that it is safe to use.

Cold wallets are the most secure way to store your Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. For the most part, however, they require a bit more knowledge to set up. It’s essential for anyone interested in owning cryptocurrency to learn about safe storage and the concepts of both hot and cold wallets.

Physical Coins

Services are cropping up which allow Bitcoin investors to buy physical Bitcoins. The coin you purchase will have a tamper-proof sticker covering a predetermined amount of Bitcoin. In order to purchase the physical coin, you may need to pay a slight premium over the value of the Bitcoin that you're buying, owing to the cost of the manufacture and shipment of the coin itself.

Other Security Precautions

Backup

Backup your entire bitcoin wallet early and often. In case of a computer failure, a history of regular backups may be the only way to recover the currency in the digital wallet. Make sure to backup all the wallet.dat files and then store the backup at multiple secure locations (like on a USB, on the hard drive, and on CDs). Not only this, set a strong password on the backup.

Software Updates

Keep your software up to date. A wallet running on non-updated bitcoin software can be a soft target for hackers. The latest version of wallet software will have a better security system in place thereby increasing the safety of your bitcoins. If your software is updated with the latest security fixes and protocol, you may evade a big crisis because of the enhanced security of the wallet. Consistently update your mobile device or computer operating systems and software to make your bitcoins safer.

Multi-Signature

The concept of a multi-signature has gained some popularity; it involves an approval from a number of people (say 3 to 5) for a transaction to take place. Thus this limits the threat of theft as a single controller or server cannot carry out the transactions (i.e., sending bitcoins to an address or withdrawing bitcoins). The people who can transact are decided in the beginning and when one of them wants to spend or send bitcoins, they require others in the group to approve the transaction.