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Stay Secure Online with Virtual Credit Card Numbers

What is a Virtual Credit Card?

A virtual card functions like a disposable representative of your real card. If something happens to a virtual card, you can just delete it and get a new one.

The two main purposes for using virtual account numbers (VANs) are security and convenience. Instead of providing merchants with your actual credit card details, you can just give the virtual card number.

Then, if there’s any security issue with the website or company, you can simply cancel that virtual card. You don’t need to worry about thieves making all sorts of fraudulent transactions, because they would just have that one limited number. And you won’t need to report your card information as stolen and get a new card mailed.

Here’s a summary of just about everything you need to know about virtual credit cards:

  • They help protect your card information: If a hacker steals your virtual credit card it won’t compromise your actual account, improving your overall card security.
  • Only for online and phone purchases: Virtual credit cards can be used online or on the phone, but not for in-store purchases.
  • The card details are different: Your virtual card will have a different account number, security code, and expiration date.
  • The features vary: The features you get with virtual cards will depend on your card issuer.
  • Some are one-use-only: A virtual number may be limited to a single transaction.
  • Maybe merchant-specific: A particular virtual number may be limited to transactions with a single merchant.
  • Might have spending limits: You can often set individual spending limits for each virtual card you create.
  • Purchases show up as normal: Any purchases or transactions you make will show up in your account as they normally would, although they may be tagged with the virtual number.

Virtual cards don’t come with any extra security measures compared to physical cards. They’re just an extra layer on top of the fraud protection you already have. The CARD Act limits your personal fraud liability to $50, and the major credit card issuers go even further by providing $0 liability policies.

A virtual card doesn’t give you anything more than that, but it does serve a bit like the first line of defense that you can easily replace. Thieves will get your disposable card details instead of your actual credit card details.

Using virtual card numbers could be a wise move if you’re making purchases from a website that you suspect is shady or unsecured.

Some credit card companies offer virtual credit cards, but not all. Keep reading to learn more and find out where you can get a virtual card number right now.

When to Use Virtual Credit Card Numbers

How secure do you feel when shopping online? Are you willing to give your real account details to any website you might make a purchase from?

Your answers probably depend on your temperament, and where you tend to shop. If you only make purchases from big, popular merchants, you can feel safe from scams but data breaches are still a threat. When it comes to smaller companies, which might have websites that seem cheap, shady, or scammy, it’s normal to feel more skeptical about the security of your private data.

Here are some situations in which you might want to protect yourself with a virtual credit card:

  • Online shopping: You may want to use disposable credit cards for all your online purchases, just to be safe or for convenience.
  • Subscription services: Say you only want to subscribe to Netflix for six months. Pay with a virtual card that will expire by then, and Netflix won’t be able to charge you after that date.
  • Potentially risky websites: It might be easiest to only use virtual cards for websites or companies that seem shady, or with new businesses.
  • You’re worried about data breaches: Data breaches are all too common. But if hackers steal your virtual card number, you can just sigh in relief as you create a new one.
  • You’ve been a victim of identity theft or credit card fraud: If you’ve already gone through the worry and hassle of identity theft or credit card fraud, you might want to take extra steps to help prevent it from ever happening again.
  • Give your child a spending method: You can give your kids a virtual credit card with a spending limit, instead of handing over your actual card.

Virtual Card Number Pros and Cons

Should you be using virtual account numbers? There aren’t many serious downsides, except on some rare occasions.

Pros

  • An added layer of security
  • No need to get a new physical card if the data is stolen
  • Convenient payment method
  • Easy to create and manage multiple virtual numbers
  • Some virtual account numbers can be used with some digital wallets

Cons

  • Only work for online or phone transactions (known as card, not present transactions)
  • No extra fraud protections beyond the regular card features
  • May have trouble with returns (although VAN providers say returns should work normally, as long as you follow store and card policies)
  • Reservations made with credit cards, like hotels and car rentals, may require you to show the card when you arrive — impossible with virtual cards

Where Can I Get a Virtual Credit Card Number?

There are currently only three credit card issuers that provide virtual account numbers. We’ll summarize them here, and then go into more detail below.

There are also several digital wallet services that can perform a very similar function for online transactions (and in-store as well). You can learn more about them below.

VIRTUAL ACCOUNT PROVIDER DETAILS
Bank of America ShopSafe
Capital One Eno
Citi Virtual Card Accounts
 
American Express has the vPayment system, which generates virtual account numbers, but this is for corporate accounts only.

 

Bank of America ShopSafe

Setup
  1. Log in to your online account
  2. Click on the “Account Activity” tab
  3. Click the “Use ShopSafe” link at the bottom-right
Learn More
Details

The ShopSafe feature will let you create virtual credit cards that you can use for card not present transactions, like online or phone purchases.

This service actually looks pretty cool when you use it. It shows a digital credit card, with random numbers being generated to fill in the details.

Generating a virtual credit card with Bank of America ShopSafe.

Generating a virtual credit card with Bank of America ShopSafe.

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