How Virtual Credit Card Numbers Can Protect You

by Natasha Gabrielle | Updated July 21, 2021 - First published on April 19, 2021

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If you shop online, you may want to think about using a virtual credit card number to better protect against fraud.

If you're making purchases online, either on your computer or a mobile device, you may feel uncomfortable entering your credit card details. There are many online scammers, and it seems like there are always new credit card fraud and scams to keep track of when shopping on the web.

The good news is that virtual credit cards exist to provide numbers that can help keep you safe and make you feel more confident about shopping online. Keep reading to learn more about virtual credit card numbers and how they work.

What is a virtual credit card number?

A virtual credit card generates a unique number different from the numbers listed on your physical credit card. Your virtual card will consist of a card number, security codes, and expiration date.

Virtual credit card numbers are connected to your existing credit card account. But the virtual numbers serve as a mask so that no one can see your actual credit card account number or the numbers on your physical card. This can protect you because it keeps your personal financial information safe and away from potential online scammers.

It also means that your actual account number and sensitive data won't be recorded anywhere, so there is less concern about a potential data breach. When shopping online, you'll enter your virtual credit card details the same way you would normally provide your regular credit card number. That way, you won't have to feel nervous about your data being exposed.

In many cases, virtual card numbers are meant to be used only one time. You generate a number and use it, and then the next time you want to shop online, you generate a new virtual card number. Sometimes you can use a virtual card number more than once, but it may have an expiration date. You'll want to check with each virtual card before you use it to make sure you know whether it's one-time use or not.

Are there any downsides to using a virtual credit card number?

Using a virtual credit card number is a smart idea, but it's important to be aware of any complications that may arise from using one.

Since many virtual card numbers are one-time use, it can complicate things when you try to return an item. Most retailers prefer to offer the refund directly back to the credit card you used to purchase. That can be an issue with virtual card numbers that have a one-time-use number. If you encounter this problem, you might instead ask for a cash refund or store credit.

Another potential issue to keep in mind is using a virtual credit card number for recurring purchases may not make sense. That's because the number may be one-time use or may expire by the time the recurring expense needs to be charged again. For those purchases, you may want to stick with your regular credit card number.

Which credit card issuers offer virtual card numbers?

Many card issuers offer virtual card numbers for your added protection. This capability is included in many top credit cards. Here's a closer look at the issuers that offer this:

  • Capital One: Eno, the virtual assistant developed by Capital One, can help card users set up merchant-specific virtual card numbers with the Eno browser extension.
  • Chase: Chase offers digital payment options through Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay -- allowing card users to create and use virtual card numbers.
  • Citi: Virtual Card Numbers are available for some of its cards, but not all.
  • Marcus by Goldman Sachs: The Apple Card, which is backed by Macus by Goldman Sachs, has virtual card numbers built into the card's capabilities.
  • Wells Fargo: Wells Fargo offers virtual card numbers to its cardmembers through third-party providers -- Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay.

Before pulling out your credit card to make an online purchase, consider whether it makes sense to use a virtual card number instead. If you're unsure whether your card supports the use of virtual card numbers, it's best to reach out to the card issuer and ask.

The bottom line

Virtual credit card numbers can help you feel more secure when shopping online. If you want to mask your actual credit card numbers and protect yourself further from online security threats, using a virtual card number may be the right option for you. Before you start using one, just ensure you know whether the virtual number is a one-time use or offers multi-use capabilities with an expiration date.

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