What do Burger King and the popular “Doge” meme have in common? They both have cryptocurrencies named after their likeliness. WhopperCoin and Dogecoin are just two examples of the thousands of types of cryptocurrencies that have caught users’ attention over the past few years. Cryptocurrencies are digital tokens generated by a computer after solving complex mathematical functions. These functions are used to verify the authenticity of a ledger, or blockchain.
Bitcoin is the most popular cryptocurrency today, increasing its value by almost 300% in 2020. Today, almost 46 million Americans own at least one share of Bitcoin, illustrating how these cryptocurrencies are the future of tomorrow’s digital payment system — or are they? The same benefits that make them a popular choice with online users have also made them popular amongst online thieves, sparking a wave of ransomware attacks and other cyberattacks more recently. This begs the question: do the benefits of Bitcoin outweigh the risks?
Bitcoin: Benefits vs. Risks
Every rose has its thorn, and several Bitcoin benefits seem to be hitched to online security risks. Here are some cryptocurrency characteristics that may seem appealing to users, but also provide cybercriminals with an opportunity to exploit:
Purchase discretion and user autonomy
As previously mentioned, cryptocurrency exchanges take place on an online public ledger, or blockchain, to secure online transactions. This means that anybody can observe the exchange online. However, the parties making the transactions are anonymous, disguised with a random number. Bitcoin users can make purchases that are never associated with their identity, similar to a cash transaction.
While the purchase discretion provided by Bitcoin may be appealing to users who want to remain private, this characteristic could also aid cybercriminals in malicious activity. Due to the anonymity of Bitcoin transactions, there is no way for someone to associate a person with a certain cryptocurrency wallet. Furthermore, a user could have multiple wallets, allowing them to spread their currency from one address to another.
For a cybercriminal looking to target an individual with ransomware, the purchase discretion and anonymity of Bitcoin provide a favorable solution. In fact, Bitcoin accounts for approximately 98% of ransomware payments today. Say a hacker carries out a ransomware attack and demands that the user pay a large sum in Bitcoin. If the user completes the payment, the hacker can keep moving the currency from one anonymous account to another. That makes it very difficult — though not impossible — to trace if the individual decides to investigate the case and tries to get their money back.
No more middleman
Another characteristic that Bitcoin users find appealing is the autonomy offered by digital currencies. In theory, they allow users more autonomy over their own money than government-regulated currencies do. With Bitcoin, users can control how they spend their money without dealing with an intermediary authority like a bank or government.
This lack of intermediary authority also opens a door for hackers to exploit. Say a user decides that they want to manage their finances using Bitcoin to bypass banking fees and send money to friends and family in different parts of the world. As previously mentioned, a Bitcoin user is assigned an anonymous private key that acts as their security credential. This key is generated and maintained by the user instead of a third-party agency. But what happens if the key isn’t random enough? An attacker could steal the user’s private key, and they will not be able to recover it since the Bitcoin blockchain is not dependent on any centralized third-party institutions. Therefore, it will be very difficult to track the attacker’s behaviors and recover lost funds.
How Consumers Can Protect Themselves from Cryptocurrency-Driven Attacks
It is safe to say that Bitcoin has caused a lot of buzz. But do the benefits outweigh the risks? Due to the nature of Bitcoin and most other public blockchains, anyone in the world can perform transactions or cryptographic computations — including cybercriminals. That’s why it is crucial for current cryptocurrency users and those considering cryptocurrency investment to do their research and know what vulnerabilities lie within the world of Bitcoin.
Follow these tips to help protect yourself from common threats that leverage cryptocurrency:
1. Do your homework.
With blockchain, cryptocurrency, and any new and emerging technology, make sure you always remain a bit skeptical. Do your homework before you embrace the technology — research your options and make note of any known security issues and what you can do to mitigate known risks.
2. Don’t pay the ransom.
If a hacker does target you with ransomware demanding Bitcoin payment, it’s best not to pay the ransom. Although you may feel in the moment that this is the only way to get your encrypted files back, there is no guarantee that the ransomware developers will send a decryption tool once they receive the payment. Paying the ransom also contributes to the development of more ransomware families, so it is best to hold off on making any payments. Furthermore, a recent study found that 80% of businesses that choose to pay a ransom experience a subsequent ransomware attack. While it may feel like your only option in the moment, paying a ransom could show attackers that you’re willing to make the payment, therefore positioning you as an ideal target for yet another attack.
3. Back up your data.
If you are targeted with ransomware, it’s crucial that you always have backup copies of your files, preferably in the cloud and on an external hard drive. This way, if you do get a ransomware infection, you can wipe your computer or device and reinstall your files from the backup. Backups protect your data, and you won’t be tempted to reward the hackers by paying a ransom. Backups won’t prevent ransomware, but they can mitigate the risks.
4. Update your credentials.
Large organizations often fall prey to ransomware attacks, so take necessary precautions if a company you’ve interacted with becomes compromised from a data leak or a ransomware attack. Immediately change your passwords for all your accounts, ensuring they are strong and unique. You can also employ a password manager to keep track of your credentials and generate secure login keys.
5. Use a comprehensive security solution
Add an extra layer of security with a solution such as McAfee® Total Protection, which includes Ransom Guard, to help protect your devices from these cyberthreats and ensure your digital wellness online.
The emergence of Bitcoin has indeed facilitated a wave of cybercrime that was previously difficult to perceive. In this new age of digital payments, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies, make sure that you do your research and stay vigilant when it comes to protecting your online safety. Remember: Bitcoin worth will continue to fluctuate, but your personal security will always remain invaluable.
To stay updated on all things McAfee and on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats, follow @McAfee_Home on Twitter, subscribe to our newsletter, listen to our podcast Hackable?, and ‘Like’ us on Facebook.