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Greed turned to fear in the cryptocurrency markets this week, following what was believed to be the largest theft of cryptocoins ever.
Last Friday, thieves hacked into Coincheck, a cryptocurrency exchange in Japan, and walked away with over $530 million worth of Nem, an alt-coin that saw its price rise 574% to $1.90 in one month from early December to early January. It’s now sitting at under $0.70.
For its part, Coincheck has said it will reimburse nearly every Nem at $0.81 on the dollar.
Still, this speaks to one very big uncertainty when deciding to invest in cryptocurrencies: How do you keep your investment safe?
Granted, "safe" isn't a word you hear often associated with cryptocurrencies, whose prices have been on a roller-coaster ride lately. Ripple's XRP coins, for instance, have lost two thirds of their value in less than a month, while, Bitcoin has been cut about in half.
But cryptocurrency investors understand that price volatility is part of the game. What they have a hard time accepting is the real possibility that virtual currency can be stolen.
When it comes to theft, though, there are safer ways to hold your cryptocoins.
Go Cold Storage
If you invest in cryptocurrencies, you’re at risk of having a hacker single you out, seeking details about your life in order to nick your coins. So you must be careful about what you say on social media or other online venues.
But if you’re only looking to use the cryptocoins for investment purposes — and not as an actual currency to make transactions with — then consider taking your coins offline altogether.
Yes, that is possible.
The process is called “cold storage" (“hot” storage, by contrast, refers to keeping your coins online).
If you’re not holding a significant amount of funds, then you can consider a cold option called a "paper wallet," which you can download online from places like Bitcoin.com or MyEtherWallet.com and set up within a few minutes.
The idea is to create a record of your private key for your Bitcoin (often as a QR code) and to have that information in printed form — not stored on your computer — so it's totally inaccessible to hackers.
Of course, the downside is that you now have to secure the hard copy of your code in a place that can't be accessed by anyone — but that's convenient enough for you to access if you need to spend or sell the currency. (And remember, if you lose the contents of your paper wallet, it's like losing your real wallet — you're out of luck.)
For some, that might mean a safe deposit box, which is a bit ironic in that you are storing a virtual currency in an actual lock box.
But that's the price you may have to pay for peace of mind.
If your investments continue to grow, you may want to turn to a "hardware wallet" instead, which stores the codes for the coins on a device (often a USB thumb drive-like device) that's detached from a computer so hackers can't get at it. You would only hook it up to a computer when you want to sell.
This provides extra security if you go online to unload your investment. But here too, it's incumbent on you to physically secure your hardware wallet so that it does not fall into the wrong hands.
Go through an ETF
One of the easiest ways to invest in cryptocurrencies, without the fear of losing the coins, is to invest indirectly by picking an exchange-traded fund that owns the virtual coins.
To be sure, ETFs that trade only in cryptocurrencies are still finding a hard time getting approved by regulators.
Earlier this month the SEC blocked the creation of two such cryptocurrency ETFs, saying “there are a number of significant investor protection issues that need to be examined before sponsors begin offering these funds to retail investors.”
But there are a few existing ETFs, however, that have cryptocurrency exposure.
Two ETFs managed by ARK Invest were among the best performers in 2017, due to an early bet in Bitcoin.
The ARK Innovation ETF (ticker symbol: ARKK), for example, had a 6.1% stake – the largest single bet in the portfolio — in the Bitcoin Investment Trust. Over the past month, it has reduced its exuberance in the coin, which now accounts for 1.14% of the fund. So it’s not a pure play.
Then again, that might be a good thing since it protects the downside.
You could also invest directly into the Bitcoin Investment Trust. But there's are several caveats here.
For starters, you must have at least $200,000 in income or a net worth of $1 million or more. Plus, you wouldn't own Bitcoin directly; you would own Bitcoin shares through a third party, Grayscale Investments. The firm boosts the security of the Bitcoins, but you pay for that added layer of protections with a 2% annual fee.
You also have to be willing to pony up if you go this route, since Bitcoin Investment Trust has a $50,000 minimum investment requirement, which isn’t something most people are willing to lose at a moment’s notice.
But if the Nem attack taught us anything, it's that there are more ways to lose when it comes to cryptocurrencies than simply seeing crypto prices go down.