What is 2FA? A simplified guide to two-factor authentication
June 15, 2022 4 min read
What is 2FA? Two-factor authentication is a multi-step process used to verify an identity during a login attempt. Read on to learn more.
It’s no secret that cybercriminals are hungry for passwords.
An unprotected password can help cybercriminals gain access to your bank account, credit cards, or personal websites. From there, they can sell your personal information, gain access to your money, or compromise your overall digital security.
But the battle isn’t lost. One way to quickly boost the safety of your online accounts is to enable two-factor authentication, aka 2FA. But what is 2FA?
In simple terms, 2FA adds an extra layer of security to your accounts by adding two (or occasionally more) layers of logins to your accounts. Let’s break this down even further, including how does 2FA work, types of two-factor authentication, and why two-factor authentication is so important.
Why is two factor authentication important?
Passwords are historically weak, due to both the advanced nature of hacking and a general annoyance with password creation and use. A Harris Poll found that nearly 50% of people use the same password across multiple accounts, increasing their overall vulnerability if a criminal was to figure out their credentials. And beyond that, over 100 million accounts still use the password “123456.”
With it becoming increasingly easy for cybercriminals to guess passwords, 2FA is more important than ever. It might seem like a hassle to add an extra step to your web surfing, but without it you could be leaving yourself vulnerable to cybercriminals who want to steal your personal information, access your bank accounts, or hack into your online credit card portals.
Adding the extra step to account access means thieves will struggle to access your personal information. If you add a knowledge factor to your bank account, a cybercriminal who knows your password won’t be able to access the account without having your phone when it receives the verification code.
That way, those still relying on the password “password” have a better shot at keeping their bank accounts secure.
How does 2FA work?
As the name suggests, two-factor authentication requires one extra step — meaning a second factor — to log into an account. The process works as follows:
The user enters their username and password.
The account, platform, or site prompts the user to input another form of verification, such as texting a code to their mobile phone.
The user enters the verification code to gain access to their account.
A good example of two-factor authentication in the real world is an ATM card. In addition to physically presenting the card, you also need to type in your PIN to access your account.
Types of 2FA security
There are several types of two-factor authentication, all of them relying on the different factors we’ve listed above.
Hardware tokens: This type of 2FA requires users to possess a type of physical token, such as a USB token, that they must insert into their device before logging in. Some hardware tokens display a digital code that users must enter.
SMS and voice 2FA: You’ll receive either a text or voice message giving you a code that you must then enter to access a site or account.
Software tokens for 2FA: These tokens are apps that you download. Any site that features 2FA will then send a code to the app that you enter before logging in.
Push notifications for 2FA: You’ll download a push notification app to your phone. When you enter your login credentials to access a website, a push notification is sent to your smartphone. A message will then appear on your phone requesting that you approve your login attempt with a tap.
Biometrics: To log into a site, you’ll first have to verify your identity with something physical about yourself. Most commonly, this means using a fingerprint scanner.
Location: If your account was created and registered in one state, and suddenly a login is attempted in a different location, it may trigger a location factor. These factors will alert you when a login is attempted on a new device and send you a code to enter to verify your identity.
Now that you know the different types of 2FA verification, let’s learn how to enable it on your devices.
How to enable 2FA
Though not all sites use 2FA, some give you the option to activate it for your account. For sites that enable 2FA, you can find the toggle to turn it on in your settings, usually under the Security tab.
Some popular websites that do enable 2FA include: Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox, LastPass, LinkedIn, Intuit, TurboTax, Mint, PayPal, and Yahoo. For a complete list of websites that have 2FA capabilities, visit this website.
Adding two-factor authentication to your high-priority accounts can help keep you — and your money and personal information — more secure.
So, what is 2FA? It’s a cybersecurity tool that can improve the Cyber Safety of your online accounts and even identity. From safeguarding online banking details to medical history, 2FA verification is an everyday pillar of internet safety.
2FA security FAQs
Check out some frequently asked questions concerning the 2FA login process.
Is 2FA safe?
For the most part, 2FA is safe. Still, like most online activities, there are ways that criminals can bypass 2FA security and access your account. For example, lost password recovery usually resets your password via email, and it can completely bypass 2FA.
Even though it's not 100% secure, 2FA can bolster your cybersecurity and is a recommended practice.
Can 2-step verification be hacked?
Yes, hackers can use certain phishing messages to work their way around 2FA login processes.
What is the strongest 2FA method?
Hardware-based 2FA is regarded as the strongest form of 2FA verification.
How do I know if I have two-factor authentication?
You can check if your account or device has 2FA by going into your privacy settings in your system preferences. You should see options for the different types of 2FA security offered.
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Clare Stouffer, a Gen employee, is a writer and editor for the company’s blogs. She covers various topics in cybersecurity.
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