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This article was last updated May 20, 2019, but some terms and conditions may have changed or are no longer available. For the most accurate and up to date information please consult the terms and conditions found on the issuer website.
If you’ve ever had to request a new credit card after a breach, you know how important it is to keep your card number out of the wrong hands. Virtual card numbers make it easier to do that since they let you shop online while keeping your card information to yourself.
Credit card fraud is by no means a new threat, but it is a threat that has evolved. While EMV (Europay, Mastercard and Visa) chip cards have made it more difficult for fraudsters to use counterfeit cards at point-of-sale (POS) terminals, they don’t protect you when you’re making purchases that don’t require you to physically hand over your card.
In this article:
- Card issuers that offer virtual card numbers
- Other options offered by third parties
- Pros and cons of virtual account numbers
- Bottom line
As a result, thieves have focused their efforts where they can get the most bang for their buck – online. In fact, according to 2018 research from advisory firm Javelin Strategy & Research, card-not-present fraud is now 81% more prevalent than POS fraud.
To address this vulnerability, some card issuers offer virtual card numbers as a means to give cardholders additional security when making card-not-present transactions. We’ll explain how virtual card numbers work, which card issuers offer them and the pros and cons of using them to shop online.
What is a virtual card number?
A virtual card number is a randomly-generated and temporary number associated with a credit or debit card account that can be used in place of the actual card number. Since you don’t have to enter your actual card number or other card details when making a transaction, that information is less likely to be compromised in a breach. Instead, a hacker only gets access to the virtual card number, which is useless after a short period of time.
Virtual card numbers provide an extra layer of security on top of any efforts an online retailer may have taken to protect your information, says Yair Levy, professor of information systems and cybersecurity at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s like an onion. You cut it across and you see all the layers of security. The idea is to try to protect your crown jewel in the middle.” In this case, the crown jewel would be your financial account information.
Virtual card numbers provide an extra layer of security on top of any efforts an online retailer may have.
The notion of keeping card numbers out of online transactions has been getting a lot of attention lately. For example, the new Apple Card will have no numbers on the front or back for thieves to get their hands on.
Virtual card numbers can also offer peace of mind, says Steve Shivers, co-founder and CEO of doxo, a web and mobile bill pay service based in Seattle. If you’re buying from a small vendor you know little about, a virtual number can ease your anxiety since you’re limiting the amount of card information the vender gets, Shivers suggests. Even mainstream commerce brands that you may know and trust experience breaches, as evidenced by such high-profile victims as Target, Marriott and Equifax.
Card issuers that offer virtual card numbers
While companies have different names for their virtual card number programs, most generally work the same way. In most cases, users must elect into the program; they won’t be automatically signed up by the card issuer. Here are some of the specifics.
Capital One’s virtual assistant Eno monitors your spending and provides fraud alerts. It also will appear when you’re ready to check out at an online merchant to give you a virtual number for that particular retailer. “With Eno, you can create unique virtual numbers for each different merchant where you shop online, in a way that is fully integrated with your existing account – so you can keep earning rewards on your Capital One card,” says a Capital One spokesperson. To access the feature, you must download a web browser extension that works with either Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Microsoft Edge.
Bank of America
Bank of America’s service is called ShopSafe, and it can be used by the company’s Visa and Mastercard cardholders, but not with Bank of America American Express cards. If cardholders choose to implement the feature, a temporary credit card number will be generated when logged into their account and opening the ShopSafe application. You can also use ShopSafe to pay monthly recurring bills, and set it to work automatically for up to a year in the future.
Some Citi cards let cardholders sign up to use what they call Virtual Account Numbers when they shop online or via mail order. Purchases made using the randomly generated numbers will show up on your monthly payment along with the specific virtual account number that was used for that transaction.
Netspend offers reloadable prepaid debit cards. Since these cards are not attached to a traditional bank or credit card account, a hacker could only gain access to the amount of money loaded on the card in the first place rather than any funds deposited in an account. Netspend gives its users the option of an additional layer of security through the use of virtual account numbers. Card users can request up to six temporary account numbers for phone and Internet transactions, and once they use the numbers, consumers can cancel them.
Other options offered by third parties
There are smaller companies that offer variations of the virtual number idea. For example, Abine.com lets you hide your credit card number by using a virtual burner card. Likewise, Privacy.com and Divvy.com are services that let you create virtual cards for online shopping.
If you’re sold on the idea of virtual card numbers, you can compare the other features of card offerings that provide the service to see which card works best for you.
Pros and cons of virtual card numbers
While virtual card numbers give consumers power over what financial information they disclose when making online transactions, there are both benefits and drawbacks to using them.
- You don’t have to hand over your card number or share details such as the card security code.
- You’ll still be able to collect rewards for your purchases since your virtual card numbers are attached to your credit card account .
- The number expires, preventing future unauthorized charges. If you have to use a credit card to sign up for a trial service, you can use a virtual card number that expires so you don’t have to worry about canceling the service before the trial period ends.
- Completing your purchase may take longer. Some merchant websites store your card information so you don’t have to re-enter it. That enables you to checkout more quickly. With virtual card numbers, you often must complete extra steps to obtain the virtual account number to enter it at checkout.
- You may run into problems when returning or verifying purchases. Some retailers that have an online and brick-and-mortar presence let you return items purchased online inside the store. If you used a virtual number to buy the item you may not be able to make in-store returns since you may be asked to show the card you used to purchase the item – and your card number wouldn’t match the virtual number. A similar snag could occur if you need to show the card you used to make an online reservation such as a car rental or airline reservation. Since the card number wouldn’t match up with the virtual number, you may need to call your card issuer and ask them to verify the purchase. There have been instances reported in which card issuers have faxed over authorizations to hotels verifying that a cardholder had used a virtual card number.
- You may be lulled into a false sense of security. While virtual card numbers can cut down on card fraud risk, they don’t eliminate it entirely. Always look at your card statements to check for unauthorized purchases and get a copy of your credit report at least once per year at AnnualCreditReport.com to look out for identity theft. Some health care providers are hit with higher fees when insurers pay using virtual card numbers. In the state of Georgia, for example, a law lets health care providers prohibit insurers from paying with virtual card numbers as a result.
Virtual card numbers provide an extra layer of protection when shopping online, but they come at a cost of convenience. Your comfort level with a particular online merchant and your risk tolerance in general can help you determine if virtual card numbers are for you.