When you’re looking for a bank, the choices are usually pretty simple. The names will be familiar.
The offers on overdraft and loan rates will be clear. And above all, whichever bank you choose, your money will be secure. You know that the bank manager won’t take your deposit to Vegas and put it all on black.
You know that if someone breaks in and empties the vault, the bank will pay—or its insurance company will pay—but your own money will be safe. Banks are regulated. Their customer service might be poor and their interest rates on savings miserly, but they are trustworthy.
That isn’t true for the cryptocurrency equivalent of a bank: the exchange.
These don’t work in quite the same way as a regular bank. First, they don’t usually pay interest on deposits or make loans in cryptocurrencies. They function largely as currency exchanges, places to buy and sell funds but not to deposit them.
But most importantly, they’re largely unregulated which means that you’re going to have to do your own homework. You’re going to have to research each exchange to make sure that you can use it—and that you should use it.
You’ll need to ask three questions:
- Which Countries Can Use the Exchange?
Although cryptocurrency exchanges aren’t regulated in the same way as banks, they will be affected by all sorts of financial regulations in the country in which they’re based and the countries they want to serve. That means that while cryptocurrency is supposed to be a borderless form of money, the exchanges are limited by borders. Make sure that a cryptocurrency exchange can serve you in your location. Coinbase, for example, now serves 103 countries. Binance has reached 53. Other, smaller exchanges might let you join but not to buy and sell digital currencies.
- How Much Volume and Liquidity Does the Exchange Have?
The banking system has been around long enough and most fiat currencies have enough stable demand for the prices across different exchanges to be uniform. One exchange might charge a higher commission on the Canadian dollar or attempt to make more money than another when changing Mexican pesos but there will always be someone willing to buy or sell the currency you want at the market rate. That isn’t true of cryptocurrency—especially small altcoins on small exchanges. The prices there depend entirely on market demand on that exchange. If you’re trying to offload a little used coin on an exchange with few buyers and sellers, then you’ll have fewer bids to choose from. As you’re reviewing small exchanges, compare the prices with those on the larger exchanges to make sure that you can always get market rates.
- Is It Safe?
This is the most important question. All exchanges are vulnerable. Even the big ones that boast of ironclad security and unhackable storage have holes in their security and can be hacked. Binance, long considered one of the most secure exchanges, recently lost $40 million in a sophisticated attack.
Make sure that an exchange you’re considering has two-factor authentication using Google Authenticator or Authy. Check to see how often they’ve been hacked in the past. Look for a secure asset fund that can cover any losses. But above all assume that the exchange you’re considering is vulnerable. Only keep enough funds on the exchange to pay for transactions, while keeping the remainder of any funds off the exchange and in cold storage.
The cryptocurrency environment has been compared to the Wild West. There’s plenty of gold in those hills, especially for courageous types who know where to look. But you also have to know what you’re doing and be prepared to look after yourself—because in the world of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, no one will do it for you.
Joel Comm is New York Times best-selling author, blockchain enthusiast, professional keynote speaker, social media marketing strategist, live video expert, technologist, brand influencer, futurist and eternal 12-year old. His latest project is as co-host of The Bad Crypto Podcast, a top cryptocurrency show making the future of digital payments easy to understand.
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