Cyberattacks are a significant threat to businesses, leading to data breaches, financial losses and ruined reputations (not to mention potential financial and emotional harm to customers). And unfortunately, these types of malicious activities seem to be on the rise.

Recent research suggests there were 38% more global cyberattacks in 2022 compared to 2021. So it's more important than ever for businesses to ramp up cybersecurity measures. One important aspect to consider is user authentication – a way of protecting customer accounts and ensuring users are genuine.

There are various levels of authentication, such as single-factor authentication (SFA), two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA). This article explains what you need to know about the two main types of authentication: MFA vs 2FA.

Single-factor authentication (SFA) – the basics

SFA requires users to verify themselves by entering and matching a single credential (usually a password or PIN code) to gain access to an online system. So, for example, a car insurance customer may log into their provider's website with a username and an eight-digit password to view their policy details.

Most online services offer this type of authentication as a minimum. But on its own, SFA isn't enough for adequate security. In fact, CISA (America's Cyber Defence Agency) has now added SFA to its list of bad practices, labelling it 'exceptionally risky', especially for critical infrastructure relied on by the public.

This is because only one factor is needed to match a user to their account. And since passwords are easily exposed, SFA is easy for hackers to bypass and perform data theft and phishing scams.

What is multi-factor authentication (MFA)?

As the name suggests, MFA uses multiple authentication factors (two or more) to prove users are who they say they are. The three types of factors used are:

  • The knowledge factor (something only you know) – such as a password, PIN code or memorable word.

  • Something you have access to – like a smartphone, a desktop device or an authentication app, e.g. Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator.

  • Something that's a part of you – like a fingerprint or facial features.

Online giants like Facebook and Google, plus banking institutions and other financial service providers that handle large amounts of sensitive data, tend to use this higher level of user authentication.

Google Authenticator app

What about two-factor authentication (2FA)?

2FA requires users to match exactly two authentication factors. Like MFA, it adds an extra layer of security to your online systems, and there are various two-step authentication methods to choose from.

Here’s an example of how it works... A customer begins the login process by entering their username and password into an online app. They're then sent a text message containing a unique security key (known as an SMS verification PIN code). They enter the code into the online app where prompted to complete login.

Alternative methods of 2FA include push notifications, app-based authentication and hardware tokens (like USB flash drives or electronic key fobs).

Is 2FA a subset of MFA?

If you think 2FA sounds a lot like MFA, that's because it is. Any 2FA method is a type of MFA. However, not all MFA is 2FA (since MFA requires users to match two or more factors instead of exactly two).

What are the pros and cons of 2FA?

2FA is more secure than SFA because it gives you a second security layer. And while implementing 2FA will involve some outlay, certain methods like SMS verification or push notifications are cost-effective.

Conversely, using advanced technologies for 2FA, e.g., facial or fingerprint recognition, will prove more costly. And it's important to note that 2FA isn't completely foolproof (however, no security system is 100% safe). Read more 2FA pros and cons.

So... what's the difference between MFA vs 2FA?

There's no major difference between 2FA and MFA other than the number of authentication factors that users must present. MFA has no limit – think 3FA, 4FA and even 5FA!

Is MFA more secure than 2FA?

MFA is generally considered more secure than 2FA because each additional factor offers an extra layer of security. Thus, the better your chances of thwarting and discouraging hackers. That said, you should keep the number of authentication factors at a reasonable level because each step impacts on the customer's time.

Imagine a customer wants to log into their online account and is first presented with a screen asking for a username and password. After that, they're asked to enter a PIN code from a text message sent to their phone and then type in three characters from a memorable word (that they've forgotten). Finally, they must carry out fingerprint recognition before accessing the app.

With all these factors to match, the customer may feel frustrated, especially if they're in a hurry or experience a glitch in the process. So MFA may not be your best choice for keeping the authentication process user-friendly.

Getting started with 2FA: setup and costs

To protect customer data effectively, it's a good idea to go beyond SFA and use 2FA (the most basic form of MFA). Many businesses use SMS verification to help users log into online services because it's affordable and straightforward to set up.

Messente's budget-friendly SMS verification solution allows you to send business-critical 2FA PIN codes in over 190 countries worldwide. You'll only pay for the volume of messages you need to send. Learn more about the costs of implementing 2FA for your organisation, or get started with Messente today.

SMS verification concept

Enhance customer data security with 2FA

Cyberattacks are on the rise globally, which is a worry for many businesses, large or small. If you need to authenticate customers so they can access your online services, it's worth implementing 2FA to help defend against security threats.

2FA is a good choice because users must present a second authentication factor to pass account security. SMS 2FA is fast, simple, user-friendly and cost-effective – a good starting point for protecting your business and customers.