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Multifactor authentication:
What it is, why you should use it

January 17, 20235 minute read

Multifactor authentication: What it is, why you should use it

Very few people enjoy multifactor authentication (MFA). In a world of almost instant digital gratification, it can feel inconvenient.

Generally speaking, MFA is the process of using two or more methods to verify a person’s identity online. It might involve a password, a security question, a code retrieved by text message or a fingerprint scan. Unfortunately most people don’t like the extra steps MFA requires.

Accessing another device or remembering another password can feel like a hassle. It slows you down. But if you want to stay secure while online, it’s the only way to go. Multifactor authentication is the safest way of protecting your information while allowing you to maintain the convenience of web-based transactions.

woman with phone and computer

How does MFA work?

There are three common methods for identity verification using multifactor authentication.

  • User knowledge, such as a password or a security question
  • Device identification, such as a phone or a computer’s IP address
  • Biometrics, such as a fingerprint scan or facial recognition

The best MFA systems use a combination of these methods, and the various types provide different levels of security and convenience.

User knowledge is the most convenient. It doesn’t require any additional hardware or software, although it’s the least secure. Information can be learned or guessed. Using device identification is more secure than user knowledge, but this method sometimes requires an additional device and more software. Biometrics are considered a more reliable method of authentication, although they can be challenging to set up because they require specific types of hardware.

In general, the more secure the verification method, the less convenient it is to use and access. But using more than one factor — of any type — is more secure than using only one verification method, such as a username and password.

man with a phone and computer sitting next to a bicycle

Extra steps help protect you from theft and fraud.

Technology advances quickly, but not too fast for cybercriminals to keep up. When online it might feel annoying to be required to complete extra steps to verify your identity, but the inconvenience of adding a few more moments to set up and sign in could prevent the enormous inconvenience of monetary theft, credit card fraud, or other types of identity theft. And with robust MFA you will be better protected against theft, since there is less chance that cybercriminals have all necessary technology at their disposal.

Even though service providers take great pains to protect their customers from the effects of online theft, data breaches still occur. If your information is involved in a data breach, you should review your accounts and remain vigilant about monitoring your data and credit reports. You could be asked to file reports with the Federal Trade Commission, all three credit bureaus, the police, and all of your financial institutions. In the meantime, you’ll want to update all of your account authentication credentials. No one wants to go through these hassles, so setting up multifactor authentication whenever possible can help protect you from a data breach.

man sitting at a table with a phone and computer

Use best practices when accessing online accounts.

Cybersecurity professionals recommend the following best practices to help keep your online identity and data safe and secure:

  • Always opt for MFA when given the choice.
  • Retrieve secondary codes through text instead of email.
  • Create unique passwords for every account.
  • Use a trusted password manager. Many are free.
  • Keep device operating systems and software up to date.
  • Learn more about identity protection.

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