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Credit Cards

What is a Virtual Credit Card?

Updated Mar 17, 2023   |   6-min read

In the last 10 years, shopping online has become the norm for many people. Clothing, groceries, and even cars are all available at the click of a mouse while sitting on your couch. All that convenience, however, comes with its own set of risks.

Although much online shopping is done at reputable sites like Amazon or eBay, almost anyone can set up an e-commerce site and start selling things, and those merchants collect millions of credit card numbers every year whether or not they’re legit. Even honest businesses aren’t always safe: In 2013, Target suffered a data breach in the United States that “affected more than 41 million of the company’s customer payment card accounts,” according to USA Today.

If you want to take advantage of the convenience of shopping online but don’t want to risk becoming a victim of credit card fraud, a virtual card number might be the type of credit card you’re looking for.

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What Is a Virtual Credit Card?

Each credit card in your wallet has a card number, expiration date, and CVV security code on the back. Those three card details are what make your card valid; if someone can steal them, they can use your card fraudulently by authorizing purchases in your name. Virtual credit cards work somewhat similarly to Apple Pay and Android Pay.

A virtual credit card number is to credit cards what Google Voice is to phone numbers. It allows you to create a digital representation of your credit card that can be used to make purchases online without giving a merchant your actual card number. It’s almost like a secondary credit card number that is linked to your real account. Virtual credit card numbers can be provided for one-time use but can also be used multiple times — it’s up to you as the cardholder.

It’s useful when shopping online or over the phone, particularly if you’re on a smaller website. If you so choose, you can even set individual spending limits for each virtual card you generate. 

Benefits of a Virtual Card

The biggest benefit to using a virtual card is that if your credit card information is stolen by a shady merchant or the site you’re purchasing from has a data leak, thieves won’t be able to access your real credit card number.

In fact, if your virtual card is somehow compromised, you can simply delete the number and generate a new one without having to get a new card or change your account number. The disposable virtual card is all that will be compromised; your real number is still safe.

Security isn’t the virtual card’s only benefit, however. You can also use a virtual card as a temporary credit card if you’ve just opened an account. Some banks issue you a temporary virtual number if you need to make purchases before you receive your physical card. 

Downsides of a Virtual Card

Not everything about virtual cards is perfect; they do come with some major downsides you should be aware of.

If you need to return something you purchased online, the merchant will often credit back the card you originally used for payment. That gets a bit sticky if you used a virtual card because the number may be invalid by the time you return the item. If this happens, you may have to be satisfied with a gift card or store credit instead of getting your money back.

It’s not wise to use them for every type of online purchase, either. If you buy concert tickets online but have to show your actual credit card at the will-call window, for example, the number you bought the tickets with won’t match what’s on your card.

You’ll also need to start keeping all of your receipts, since they will have information on how long your virtual card was good for. That can help later if someone tries to re-use the number.

How to Get a Virtual Credit Card

Many credit card issuers offer virtual numbers, but you’ll have to ask for one. Typically, it’s an option that’s available under your account settings on the issuer’s website. Not all issuers have virtual credit card services, however; you’ll need to check with your particular credit card company.

Which Credit Cards Offer Virtual Account Numbers?

Here are a few issuers that do offer virtual credit card numbers:

Capital One Eno

Eno is a financial assistant offered by Capital One. It’s an add-on for your Firefox 57 browser, and when you’re shopping online, it not only offers you insights about your card use or alerts but also automatically creates virtual numbers each time you make a purchase. It’s great for online shopping, of course, but isn’t meant for purchases where you’ll need to show your physical credit card.

Bank of America ShopSafe

For Bank of America cardholders, there is ShopSafe. You can create virtual numbers and set their validity length for up to one year, which means you can continue using the same one without worrying about your real credit card account number being stolen. It’s only available on Bank of America Visa and Mastercard customers using the online banking service. It’s not available for any Bank of America American Express cards, either.

Citi Virtual Card Accounts

If you have a Citibank credit card, you may be eligible for Citibank’s Virtual Account Number benefit, which is available on select Citi cards. All virtual numbers are listed on your monthly statement so you can see exactly which numbers were used for each transaction.

What Happens if My Virtual Credit Card Number is Stolen?

Perhaps the best benefit of a virtual credit card number is that if it’s stolen or used fraudulently, you don’t need to destroy your card, update any automatic payments, or be otherwise inconvenienced. With a virtual card number, you simply delete it and get a new one.

Bottom Line

If you do a lot of online shopping, a virtual card number is a great way to add another layer of security to your information. Keep in mind the downsides, however, and make sure you are still using your real credit card number as appropriate.