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How Authenticator Apps Work and Why You Absolutely Need One

We live in an age of rising online threats. Identity theft affected over 42 million Americans in 2021 alone. And hackers had a field day during the pandemic, targeting working professionals accessing accounts remotely. No wonder over 80% of people worry about their online security.

Relying solely on passwords is no longer enough to protect your sensitive information from cybercriminals. The bad guys are just too savvy these days.

To stay safe online, I highly recommend taking the quick and easy step to add an authenticator app to all your important accounts. This guide will walk you through exactly how these apps work and why they‘re essential to locking down your security.

I‘ll also compare the most popular options to help you choose the best authenticator app for your needs. Let‘s dive in!

What is an Authenticator App and How Does it Work?

An authenticator app, also called a two-factor or multi-factor authentication app, adds an extra layer of protection beyond your username and password when you log in to accounts.

Here‘s the deal:

When you try to access a protected account, you‘ll first enter your regular password as normal. But after that, the authenticator app generates a random 6-8 digit passcode that‘s only valid for about 30 seconds.

You need to enter that temporary code within that short timeframe to complete the login. No code, no access, as simple as that.

Authenticator app code example

A new authenticator code must be entered alongside your password to log in securely.

This time-sensitive one-time passcode adds an additional step to confirm it‘s really you trying to log in. The extra factor helps verify your identity and keep the bad guys out.

These codes are created using secure time-based algorithms, most often TOTP (Time-Based One-Time Password). The app generates a new code every 30 seconds that‘s impossible to predict, even for skilled hackers.

So in order to successfully break into your account, a cybercriminal would need access to both your password AND your device with the authenticator app. That‘s extremely difficult and unlikely.

This is why using an authenticator app in addition to a password dramatically enhances your security. The app itself stores your codes offline in encrypted form on your phone or desktop. They‘re never sent over a network or stored in the cloud.

According to a report by cybersecurity company SpyCloud, around 80% of consumers reuse passwords across accounts, making them easy targets.[2] Using unique passwords everywhere would make you much safer, but let‘s face it, that‘s really tough to do.

Adding an authenticator app gets you high-grade account protection without having to memorize tons of complicated passwords. Convenience and security? I‘ll take it!

It‘s a Snap to Set Up

When it comes to tech, I‘m no expert. So I was relieved to find authenticator apps take only minutes to set up even for total newbies.

Here‘s how simple the process is:

  1. Download a trusted authenticator app onto your smartphone, whether iOS or Android. Top picks include Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator, Authy, and LastPass Authenticator.

  2. In the account you want to protect, enable two-factor or multi-factor authentication, and choose authenticator app as the method.

  3. Use the app to scan the QR code displayed on screen, and presto! You‘re all linked up.

Now whenever you need to log into that account, you‘ll enter your password then open the app to view and input the 6-digit code to verify it‘s you. Easy as pie!

Repeat the process to add extra security on all your most sensitive accounts, and rest assured the bad guys can‘t get in.

Hackers increasingly target financial and email logins above all else. But any account containing private information is worth the 1 minute it takes to setup 2FA.

When Should You Use an Authenticator App?

Any account with sensitive, valuable or confidential data should be protected with an authenticator app. Here are some prime examples:

Financial Accounts

Online banking, investment accounts, mobile payment apps, cryptocurrency exchanges—anything to do with your money absolutely requires extra login security.

Over 200,000 new phishing sites are created every month targeting consumers‘ financial information. And thieves are drooling over the growing crypto market—crypto-related fraud rose by nearly 800% in 2021! [3]

You‘ve worked hard for those funds. An authenticator app acts like an extra padlock to keep them safe from unauthorized access and theft.

Email Accounts

Your inbox likely contains a goldmine of personal information like passwords, tax documents, contacts, and more.

Securing your email with 2FA should be a top priority. In fact, 1 in 10 of all stolen records in 2022 were email logins, according to IBM.[4] Don‘t make it easy for crooks.

Plus, access to your email also allows hackers to reset passwords on other accounts. Lock it down!

Work Accounts

During the past few years of increased remote work, cybercriminals aggressively targeted employee access in hopes of stealing company data.

Protect yourself by enabling an authenticator app on all work-related accounts like email, document servers, project management tools, VPN access, and software logins. You don‘t want to be the cause of a data breach!

Social Media Accounts

Social media contains a lot of personal information like your location, interests, birthdates, and photos hackers can leverage in identity theft.

Teenagers also face threats like cyberbullying if their social media is compromised.

71% of teenagers have at least one social media account, and many parents don‘t realize these risks.[5] Adding 2FA keeps social accounts secure.

Online Shopping Accounts

Your ecommerce accounts store valuable payment information like credit cards as well as your name, email, phone number, and physical addresses for orders.

  • Over 100 million online accounts were compromised in 2022, many belonging to popular retailers.[6] Protect your accounts to prevent payment fraud and identity theft.

Password Managers

Here‘s some irony for you—even your password manager itself needs extra security! Password managers conveniently store all your login credentials in one place.

Accessing someone‘s password manager would give a hacker the keys to take over all their accounts. Enabling 2FA on your password app adds crucial protection.

Let‘s move on to exploring how to pick the right authenticator app for you.

How to Choose the Most Secure Authenticator App

The app store offers tons of authenticator apps, so how do you determine which one is best for your needs? Here are the top factors I recommend considering:

Trusted Provider

Only download apps made by respected companies like Google, Microsoft, and cybersecurity leaders. Avoid off-brand apps that could be shady.

Actively Maintained

Look for authenticator apps that are frequently updated to fix vulnerabilities and add new features. Outdated apps can become insecure.

Cloud Backups

Backing up your codes to the cloud allows you to restore them when switching devices. Ensure they use end-to-end encryption for security.

Cross-Platform Availability

Apps that work across iOS, Android, desktop browsers, and ideally wearables like smartwatches give you the most flexibility.

Local Encrypted Storage

For privacy, your codes should be generated and stored only on your device, not external servers. Encryption provides another layer of protection.

Lock Options

Having the ability to lock the app itself behind biometric ID like fingerprint or face scan, or a PIN code, secures the codes if your phone is lost.

Ease of Use

Look for a super simple setup process, ideally with scannable QR codes to quickly link accounts. The simpler, the better!

With the above criteria in mind, let‘s explore some of the best, most secure authenticator apps on the market today.

Battle of the Authenticator Apps

Now that you know what to look for, here‘s an in-depth feature comparison of the top contenders:

Google Authenticator

Platforms: iOS, Android

Cost: Free

Google Authenticator is one of the most widely used and trusted 2FA apps. Highlights include:

✅ Uses industry standard TOTP protocol to generate codes

✅ Easy account setup by scanning QR codes

✅ Encrypted local storage for privacy

✅ Simple and user-friendly

✅ Actively maintained by Google

❌ No cloud backup – lose codes if you lose your phone

❌ No biometric login option

Overall, Google Authenticator ticks all the core boxes. It‘s super reliable and secure. Just be diligent about backing up your secret keys in case you ever switch devices.

> Get Google Authenticator

Microsoft Authenticator

Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows

Cost: Free

Microsoft Authenticator works great across iOS, Android, and Windows devices. Key features:

✅ Uses OATH TOTP standard to generate secure codes

✅ Easy camera scanning to set up accounts

✅ Optional encrypted cloud backup to Microsoft account

✅ Biometric or PIN app lock for an extra layer of security

✅ Actively developed with new improvements

❌ Requires Microsoft account for full functionality

❌ Supports fewer services than Google Authenticator

If you use Windows and want super simple cloud syncing, Microsoft Authenticator is a great cross-platform choice.

> Get Microsoft Authenticator


Platforms: iOS, Android, Chrome, Desktop

Cost: Free

What sets Authy apart is availability across mobile, desktop, and the web along with encrypted cloud backups:

✅ Secured encrypted cloud sync

✅ Access codes on iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, web browsers

✅ Biometric login with Face ID or fingerprint

✅ Very easy to set up and use

✅ Developed by trusted cybersecurity company Twilio

❌ Smaller platform support than Google Authenticator

❌ Fewer advanced options compared to rivals

If seamless access to codes across all your devices is the priority, Authy is a versatile cloud-based authenticator app to consider.

> Get Authy

Duo Mobile

Platforms: iOS, Android

Cost: Free

Duo Mobile stands out for its interactive approve/deny prompts and extensive integrations:

✅ Approve or deny login requests instead of codes

✅ See all login locations on an interactive map

✅ Works seamlessly with the Apple Watch

✅ Hundreds of account integrations

✅ Slick enterprise-focused features

❌ Primarily designed for business use, steeper learning curve

❌ No way to back up codes if you lose phone

Duo‘s Approve/Deny logins and enterprise integrations make it a top choice for securing work accounts.

> Get Duo Mobile

LastPass Authenticator

Platforms: iOS, Android

Cost: Free for LastPass Premium users

LastPass Authenticator perfectly complements the LastPass password manager:

✅ Backs up codes securely into your LastPass vault

✅ Effortlessly syncs codes across mobile devices

✅ Wide range of supported accounts and services

✅ Extremely easy to set up and use

❌ Requires premium LastPass account

❌ Limited usefulness without LastPass

For LastPass families who want streamlined 2FA across accounts, LastPass Authenticator is the obvious hassle-free choice.

> Get LastPass Authenticator

Authenticator App FAQs

Let‘s wrap up with answers to some frequently asked questions:

Are authenticator apps safe to use?

Absolutely! Top apps from Google, Microsoft and other cybersecurity leaders use the most secure protocols to encrypt your codes locally on your device. As long as you don‘t share your passwords or codes, they provide excellent protection.

What if I lose my phone?

With most authenticator apps, you‘ll lose access to your codes if your device is lost or stolen. That‘s why backups are so important. Use an authenticator like Authy that syncs securely to the cloud. Or manually back up your secret keys to keep on an encrypted flash drive for emergency recovery.

Can I use 2FA without a smartphone?

A few authenticator options like Authy allow you to access codes on a desktop computer. Or you can purchase a hardware security key like YubiKey. But generally, a smartphone or mobile device is required to easily use most authenticator apps.

Is it a pain to set up?

Not at all! The best authenticator apps make it super simple to enable 2FA on your accounts. Just scan a QR code or enter a provided key. The whole process takes mere minutes per account, and well worth the extra security.

Is SMS two-factor secure?

While better than just a password, SMS two-factor authentication has risks. Hackers can intercept your SIM card or phone number to receive texted codes. Authenticator apps provide much stronger protection for your logins.

To Sum It All Up…

Here‘s the bottom line:

Online threats show no signs of slowing down. Large password breaches are reported almost weekly. Relying just on passwords leaves you vulnerable to data theft and fraud.

Taking a few minutes to add an authenticator app provides a huge security boost for very little effort. With both factors needed to log in, it becomes infinitely harder for hackers to access your accounts.

I strongly encourage using a trusted authenticator app like Google or Microsoft on all accounts containing any private information, especially financial and work accounts you access online. Don‘t take chances with your data!

The minor extra steps to log in with a code are a small price to pay for serious peace of mind. Implementing authenticator app protection on all your important accounts helps ensure you won‘t be the next victim of identity theft or hacking.

Stay safe out there! Let me know if you have any other questions.


Streamr Go

StreamrGo is always about privacy, specifically protecting your privacy online by increasing security and better standard privacy practices.