| It was worth $400 five years ago, but more than $60,000 in mid-April. You can buy it at a grocery store or gas station by using one of the 32,300 ATMs selling it. And it plays a leading role in many scams now targeting older Americans.
It's Bitcoin, a type of money that bears little resemblance to what people have understood money to be for centuries. It's not issued by any country. There are no Bitcoin printing presses or mints. It exists only on computers.
A huge industry has sprung up around Bitcoin. Major companies like PayPal, Dish Network and Overstock.com are now accepting it as payment. Elon Musk's electric car company, Tesla, spent $1.5 billion on it in January. But just because this currency is hitting the mainstream doesn't mean it's for everyone. Here's what you need to know so you won't get burned.
Where do you find it?
Contrary to what its name implies, Bitcoin exists only as digital code. Transactions are conducted and verified via a digital ledger, known as a blockchain, using a network of computers; the virtual money itself is stored in what's known as a digital wallet. If you want to buy Bitcoin, you don't have to buy a full one; you can purchase tiny fractions — and do so online through Bitcoin exchanges such as Coinbase, Binance and Gemini, or at one of the many ATMs in the U.S. that sell it.
Where did it come from?
Bitcoin's origin story has all the makings of a whodunit: It was launched in 2009 by someone (or someones) using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who published a paper online proposing a currency that didn't need to go through a financial institution. More than a decade later, after billions of dollars worth of transactions in Bitcoin and despite the efforts of many would-be detectives, it's still uncertain who created it.
What's a Bitcoin worth?
Whatever people decide on a particular day. Lately, that's around $50,000; in late 2017 it was $19,000, but in early 2019 it was $4,000. If people feverishly pour money into Bitcoin, the value rises. But if demand drops, that value can plummet. The same is true of the other digital currencies, known as cryptocurrencies, created in recent years. That's not necessarily crazy; this notion of “implied value” holds true to some extent for almost anything, be it stocks, houses or antiques.