Why is everyone talking about Bitcoin?

The cryptocurrency has been making headlines this week.

What are we talking about?

Bitcoin is a form of digital currency created in 2009 as a worldwide online payment system.

Isn't it like real money?

Kind of. While it has value in the same way physical money does, Bitcoin exists as a digital currency. It's also unregulated, meaning it's not subject to the rules of any nation (or their tax laws).

Transactions are carried out anonymously with few – if any – fees being levied, and no single person or institution (ie. banks or federal reserves) has control over how it's used.

Think of it as a mixture of currency and stocks. A Bitcoin can be used to buy goods and services in the same way a dollar can, however the value of a Bitcoin fluctuates (wildly) depending on demand for it.

The value of a dollar also changes based upon inflation, but it's regulated by the Federal Reserve can be more easily influenced by government policy. Its value is also dictated by supply and demand for the things we actually buy with the money, rather than the demand for the currency itself.

Why's it in the news?

Because the value of a single Bitcoin passed the $11,000 mark on Wednesday – rising $3,100 in the space of a week.

A year ago, a Bitcoin was worth just $731, marking a meteoric rise and a payday for people holding them. It has since dropped back from its Wednesday peak.

Where can you spend Bitcoin?

Bitcoins were created as a currency to buy services over the internet, and an increasing number of retailers have started accepting them as forms of payment.

99Bitcoins notes that Overstock, Subway, Expedia, Virgin Atlantic and Microsoft are among the companies that accept the currency.

Does everyone use Bitcoin this way?

No. This week shows that there are plenty of investors hoping to make a fast buck simply by owning Bitcoins, in the hope of selling them at a profit in the future.

But since Bitcoin doesn't have any fundamental value other than what people are willing to pay for it and isn't protected by governments, it's extremely volatile as an investment – with some stock market analysts even referring to it as a "fraud."

And because it's anonymous and difficult to trace, it's also a popular form of currency among money launderers, fraudsters, hackers and scammers.

How do I get them?

You can sign up to a digital wallet service like Coinbase, the biggest service of its kind in the U.S., where you exchange actual money for Bitcoins.

You don't have to buy whole Bitcoins, you can buy fractions of them depending on how much you want to put into your account.

There are also several ATMs in the Twin Cities where you can buy and sell Bitcoins, with Digital Mint having some in Fridley, Columbia Heights, Coon Rapids and Brooklyn Park.

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