What is multi-factor authentication?

Man typing on his cell phone

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) (also known as two-factor authentication or two-step verification) is a security measure that requires anyone logging into an account to navigate a two-step process to prove their identity. MFA makes it twice as hard for criminals to access an online account and obtain personal or financial information. It’s an easy protective measure that increases your security, whether it’s for your social media accounts or online banking.

How does multi-factor authentication work?

By adding a step when logging into an account, multi-factor authentication greatly increases the security of your account. Here’s how it works: Just like logging into your account, the first step is giving your password or passphrase. The second step is to provide an extra way of proving your identity, like entering a PIN, texting/emailing a code to your mobile device, or accessing an authenticator app.

What does multi-factor authentication include?

There are various ways online organizations implement two-factor authentication. Some of the most common methods include PIN or verification codes, security questions, or biometrics—below is a list of popular types of multi-factor authentication:

  • An extra PIN (personal identification number)
  • The answer to a security question like, “What’s your favorite pet’s name?”
  • An additional code, either emailed to an account or texted to a mobile phone
  • A biometric identifier, like facial recognition or a fingerprint
  • A unique number generated by an authenticator app
  • A secure token, which is a separate piece of hardware (like a key fob that holds information) that verifies a person’s identity with a database or system

What type of accounts offer MFA?

Not every account offers MFA, but it’s becoming more popular. It’s seen on many accounts that usually hold either valuable financial or personal information, like banks and financial institutions, online stores, or social media platforms. Any place online that is storing your personal information (especially financial information) or any account that can be compromised and used to trick or defraud someone else should be protected with MFA. You should use MFA everywhere you can!

What are the pros and cons of multi-factor authentication?

Multi-factor authentication was introduced to make it harder for hackers to access systems or applications and protect users from fraud. While the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, there are cons to multi-factor authentication. The downside is that some users often forget answers to security questions or may lose their tokens. Below are some additional pros and cons of MFA:

Pros of MFA

  • Adds layers of security
  • Uses one-time passwords that are randomly generated in real-time, making it harder for hackers to crack
  • Allows for easy setup
  • Can reduce security breaches by up to 99%
  • Mitigates password risks, like duplicated passwords

Cons of MFA

  • A phone is needed to access text message codes, and phones can easily be lost or stolen
  • Hardware tokens can get lost or stolen
  • MFA can fail if there is a network outage
  • Phishing is still an issue, as hackers can create phishing emails that mimic MFA texts or emails

Following the above steps is essential to securing your personal and financial information. This is the third in a series of cybersecurity education posts to help you stay safe online. Over the next few months, we’ll share greater insight and tips on other ways to safeguard your online presence.

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