(KRDO) -- The first thing to understand about Bitcoin is it's not a coin.
Despite images of coins that you may have seen on TV or the internet, there are no high-tech factories that stamp and distribute them.
Think of cryptocurrency more like a PayPal account that turns dollars into a new form of digital money. Bitcoin and other forms, however, are considered unhackable.
They are also decentralized, meaning the total supply isn't managed by any country's government.
Today, 1 in every 7 or 8 Americans owns some form of cryptocurrency, according to the latest estimates.
For most of her life, 84-year-old Stella Manzanares was a hairdresser. She later invested some money in traditional stocks and mutual funds and says she did “ok.”
Now, however, she's among more than 20 million crypto investors in the country.
"I bought a few bitcoins when it was low, and it got up here, and I thought ‘Ooooh I'm going to make good money.’"
She now has all the money she needs and has moved on to her grandkids.
"They're going to be well off when I'm through with them," says Manzanares.
Helping her navigate the waters of cryptocurrency was Dave Benavides, who describes himself as a crypto enthusiast.
Benavides worked in the tech industry for years before discovering Bitcoin.
“Jumped in and haven't looked back."
He believes cryptocurrency is simply the latest step in the evolution of money, which has moved farther and farther away from coins and paper in recent decades.
"People have moved away from that to credit cards,” he explains, “so now you're moving to your phone. You don't need money, you can have it on your phone. Now you're into crypto currency."
However, many question whether it can be considered currency at all, with very few merchants willing to accept it as a form of payment for goods or services.
Most people are buying it as an investment, or even a gamble, because unlike regular money, the values of Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin, and thousands of other "tokens" have spiked wildly in recent years.
From his office in London, the CEO of Munch Token told KRDO over Zoom that most crypto buyers nowadays are looking for a way to make money more than anything else.
"Obviously people are looking for the next ‘gem’ so they can multiple-fold their money,” says CEO Rodrigo Silva.
Silva hopes his Munch Token will stand out from the rest because it donates a percentage of its revenue to charity.
This form of giving back has been a powerful experience for Silva.
“It's definitely the most rewarding thing I've ever been involved with in my life. That's for sure."
But there is also a very dark side to crypto.
“There's a risk factor, in everything we do," says Benavides, who lost a fellow crypto investor to suicide after the man couldn't handle a major financial loss.
"He had called me, and told me he was going to put an end to it,” Benavides recalls, “and I tried to convince him that 'Hey, there's more to life, you have so much to give' and all that, and he didn't hear me."
Bitcoin has also become the payment of choice among hackers using ransomware, due to it being untraceable.
Brad Harvey of Harvey Investment Management in Colorado Springs is skeptical.
"I just don't think it's ready for prime time investment,” he says.
Harvey, a Certified Financial Planner, sees a future for crypto coins and tokens, largely based on their advanced blockchain technology, but the volatility makes him hesitant to recommend it to his clients.
“I think it is going to grow. However, I think it's going to be a while before it's anything but a very, very speculative investment.”
Not a single country had adopted Bitcoin as an official currency until El Salvador lawmakers voted to do it in June. Other countries are now considering it also.
Manzanares is all in.
“I have a lot of faith in it,” she says.
Financial experts and even the federal government, however, urge investors to do their research and exercise extreme caution.
If you are serious about getting into Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, here are some resources that can help you learn more so you can make an informed decision.
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission - Investor.gov
What is Bitcoin? - Investopedia