If you regularly use your credit card for online purchases, you could be vulnerable to a data breach. Virtual credit card numbers are a potential solution for protecting your personal information.
Virtual credit cards can help you conceal your real credit card information while shopping online. Some major credit card companies, such as Capital One and Citi, offer this as a free option for their members.
Money expert Clark Howard loves the concept. He says the extra layer of security could prevent a potential headache down the road.
“It’s so fantastic to be able to use one-use numbers,” Clark says. “This eliminates you having to change your number, get a new card and all of that — if somebody has compromised the checkout portion of an online seller’s website.”
In this article, I’ll explain how virtual credit cards work, tell you how to get one and provide some alternatives if you can’t get one through your card issuer.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Virtual Credit Card?
- How Does a Virtual Credit Card Work?
- How Do I Get a Virtual Credit Card?
- Alternatives to a Virtual Credit Card
- Final Thoughts
What Is a Virtual Credit Card?
A virtual credit card is a service that helps you keep financial information secure during internet shopping. Typically, you get a unique virtual number that’s different from the physical card number attached to your account. These virtual numbers are randomly generated and are disposable.
This added layer of security can help reduce the chances of fraudulent activity with your account, because the virtual number is not as useful to criminals as your physical credit card number. The virtual number is essentially a disposable “dummy” number that is good only for limited use.
How Does a Virtual Credit Card Work?
When you sign up for virtual credit card services, you’ll be able to conduct transactions online without revealing your card’s true identity.
Depending on your card issuer’s options, this can be done in a couple of different ways:
- Single-use Transactions: If you have a one-time purchase to make with a website you may not trust, you can get a virtual credit card number for that single transaction. Think of it as a disposable mask for your credit card. Your credit card company will generate a random 16-digit number for the transaction. The merchant will use it as though it’s your regular card number, and any card information that is stored by that site will be useless to potential predators down the line.
- Merchant-specific Transactions: Some card issuers will let you set up virtual credit card numbers that work with just one online merchant. Capital One, for example, will create a unique card number for each merchant and let you lock and unlock that number for use. And that won’t have any effect on the use of your physical card or other virtual card numbers you have with Capital One. This could be a handy protection tool for storing card information with an online merchant where you shop often.
How Do I Get a Virtual Credit Card?
Check with your credit card issuer to see if it offers virtual credit cards. Not all issuers will offer this service. Some offer digital wallet alternatives instead, and we’ll explore that a little later in the article.
Some of the issuers that do offer virtual credit cards include Capital One and Citi.
Capital One Eno
Capital One offers virtual credit cards through Eno, which is its free virtual assistant service available to most cardholders. By installing the Eno app on your devices and plugin on your internet browser, you’ll be able to create and manage virtual credit card numbers that are specific to different merchants. Capital One explains how it works:
“Eno helps you shop online safely by instantly creating unique virtual card numbers for each merchant site right from your browser. If you want to stop spending on your card with one merchant, you can lock and unlock that unique virtual card number without affecting other spending (and keep earning rewards). No need to replace your card.”
Locking and unlocking a virtual number may be extra maintenance, but it can provide some additional peace of mind.
Citi Virtual Account Numbers
Citi’s virtual credit card offering is called “Virtual Account Numbers.” It’s not available as a perk on all Citi credit cards, so you’ll first want to check the benefits on your specific account before enrolling for the program here. For example, the Citi Double Cash card offers this, but the Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi does not.
By using Citi’s randomly generated numbers, you’ll be able to shop online or mail order with a unique card number for each transaction. These numbers will be tied to your Citi account and will appear on your billing statement beside each transaction.
Alternatives to a Virtual Credit Card
As the credit card industry continues to evolve in its fight against fraud, several companies have decided to move away from the virtual credit card in favor of different technology.
For example, Bank of America retired its ShopSafe virtual credit card program in 2019 in favor of digital wallets. According to Cleveland.com, Bank of America offered the following explanation for the shift in philosophy:
“We believe the wide range of security alerts and fraud tools we use today are best in class and, combined with the availability of digital wallets, provide our customers with an enhanced level of protection and a better user experience.”
Digital wallets protect your card information by issuing a one-time use or merchant-specific “token” for each transaction. Much like credit card chip readers for in-person purchases, these virtual tokens isolate the transactions and hide your card’s true identity.
Some popular digital wallets that may be compatible for use with your credit card include:
- Visa Checkout
- Mastercard Click To Pay
- Amex Express Checkout
- Google Pay
- Apple Pay
- Bank of America Digital Wallet
If you do your online shopping with a debit card, you can gain the protection of virtual card numbers for that through Privacy.com.
Even though it’s a third-party service, Privacy.com offers virtual cards free of charge. The company makes its money by taking a portion of the card processing fees paid by merchants.
Privacy.com issues merchant-specific virtual numbers. You’re able to customize the usage of these card numbers by setting limits on things like the number of transactions or the total amount of money spent.
Here are some pros and cons to consider:
Virtual Credit Cards: Pros and Cons
|Protects your physical credit card number from online predators||Limited availability with some credit card providers|
|Customizable numbers for specific online merchants and/or one-time use numbers||Added time to online purchases|
|Can generate a new number for as little as one transaction||May require additional maintenance with various online merchants|
Bottom Line: Clark says virtual credit cards are fantastic. If your card issuer offers them, it’s probably worth the extra effort to protect your personal credit card information. If your card does not offer this, the use of a digital wallet may be a suitable alternative.