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What is a Virtual Credit Card?

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A virtual credit card is a temporary credit card number that allows you to shop online without providing vendors with your actual credit card number. The randomly generated number changes each time you use your real credit card account to make a purchase — which can help ensure that your credit card info doesn’t get into the wrong hands.

We explain what you need to know about virtual card credit cards, including how they work, which issuers offer them and the pros and cons of using them to shop online.

What is a virtual credit card number?

A virtual credit 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 — such as the security code or expiration date — 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.

How virtual credit cards help keep you safer

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.

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 81% more prevalent than POS fraud.

Virtual card 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 cyber security 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.
The notion of keeping card numbers out of online transactions has been getting a lot of attention lately. For example, the new Apple Card has no numbers displayed on the front or back of the card 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 vendor 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.

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.

American Express virtual credit cards

Although American Express discontinued virtual card numbers for consumer accounts in 2004, it does offer virtual card numbers for corporate cardholders through American Express Go. American Express virtual credit cards, which include a 15-digit number, expiration date, security code and associated billing zip, provides a flexible way for your employees, contractors, freelancers, recruits and more to purchase items on the go.

Which cards qualify? American Express Go is currently only available to corporate credit card members. If you have been invited to join the program, simply download the American Express Go app to get started. Or, you can contact American Express to add American Express Go to your existing account.

How does it work? To create a virtual card, you’ll need to create a user profile and virtual card in the American Express Go portal for your team. Virtual cards are then sent to employees through the Amex Go mobile app and can immediately be used online or added to a mobile wallet.

Bank of America virtual credit cards

As of Sept. 2019, Bank of America® no longer offers ShopSafe — which allowed cardholders to create new virtual credit card numbers and make purchases online with saved virtual card numbers.

Citi virtual credit cards

Citi® offers Virtual Account Numbers, which randomly generates a Citi card number when shopping online or via mail order. Purchases made using your temporary number will show up on your monthly statement, along with the specific virtual account number that was used for that transaction.

Which cards qualify? This benefit is not available to all Citi cards. To see if your specific card qualifies for the Virtual Account Numbers benefit, log in or register for Card Benefits.

How does it work? When you are ready to provide payment information to the merchant, launch Virtual Account Numbers and select “generate” to obtain a virtual number. In the checkout form, enter the new number, the expiration date and the security code on the back of the card. You can add even more security by selecting “Advanced Options” and setting a time and/or dollar limit to the generated virtual account number.

Netspend virtual credit cards

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. Eligible cardholders can request up to six temporary account numbers for online and phone transactions.

How does it work? Prior to checking out online, log in to the Netspend online account center, and generate a virtual account number. After the transaction is complete, you can cancel the temporary number.

Other options offered by third parties

There are smaller companies that offer variations of the virtual number idea. For example, lets you hide your credit card number by using a virtual burner card. Likewise, and Divvy are services that let you create virtual cards for online shopping.

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 can still collect rewards for your purchases since your virtual card numbers are attached to your credit card account.
  • The number expires, preventing future unauthorized charges. For example, instead of using a credit card to sign up for a free trial service, you can use a virtual card number and cancel the number immediately. That way, you won’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. However, with virtual card numbers, you usually have to 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 allow you to return online purchases inside of 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, airline reservation or hotel stay. 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 to look out for identity theft. Also, some healthcare providers are hit with higher fees when insurers pay using virtual card numbers. In the state of Georgia, for example, a law lets healthcare providers prohibit insurers from paying with virtual card numbers.

Is a virtual credit card right for you?

Virtual card numbers provide an extra layer of protection when shopping online, but they can come at a cost of convenience. Your comfort level with a particular online merchant and your risk tolerance in general can help determine if virtual card numbers are right for you.


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