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What are virtual credit card numbers and how do they work? A complete guide

Virtual credit card numbers are temporary card numbers your credit card company issues for you when you're shopping online. Using one can protect your private financial information and personal data.
Written by Mandy Sleight, Contributor

Even the savviest and most trusting online shopper may feel nervous when entering their credit card information into a website to make an online purchase. You can do everything right to protect your identity and personal information and still become a victim of hacking when a retailer experiences a data breach. 

In 2021, some well-known retailers were victims of hackers, resulting in data breaches for millions of Americans. The California DMV, CVS Health, Wegmans, Kroger, T-Mobile, Microsoft Exchange, Hobby Lobby, Facebook, Geico, FitBit, and Apple are just a few of the companies victimized last year. 

Shopping online and housing your data there is a convenience most people aren't ready to give up. Consider using virtual credit card numbers to thwart the hackers and add a layer of security to your online life. 

What are virtual credit card numbers?

Virtual credit card numbers are a sequence of numbers issued by your credit card company that can be used in place of your actual credit card number.

A virtual credit card number works similar to a chip credit card. It creates a one-time-use sequence of numbers or a token when shopping with an online merchant instead of entering your physical credit card number into the website. 

If the website ends up getting hacked and credit card numbers are exposed, the virtual credit card number can't be traced back to you personally. This online shopping method can protect your identity and prevent scammers and other thieves from getting your real credit card number to do their own shopping on your credit.

Which credit card issuers offer virtual credit card numbers?

Several credit card issuers offer virtual credit card numbers to provide their customers with an added layer of protection.

Capital One offers a virtual credit card number through Eno, its virtual assistant. You download the Eno browser extension and register your Capital One credit card through Eno. When you're ready to checkout, Eno creates a virtual credit card number for you to pay with. Eno can also store virtual card numbers for use again at the same merchant.

Also: How to protect your personal data online

If you're a Citi card user, certain Citi credit cards have a virtual account number feature you can activate in the card benefits section of your online account. Each purchase made will show on your account state with the virtual number used to help you track transactions.

Titanium Apple card users can access their Apple Pay account to find their virtual credit card numbers. This is especially useful when making purchases where Apple Pay is not yet an acceptable payment method.

Like Chase and Wells Fargo, other credit card issuers allow users to create virtual credit card numbers in their digital wallets. They can be used to make purchases online with Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay. 

American Express gives users the option for an instant card number on some credit cards, which can be loaded into your digital wallet for immediate use. You don't have to wait until your physical card comes in the mail to do your shopping.

If you're unsure if your card issuer offers a virtual credit card number option, it's best to ask them directly if this is an option for making secure payments.

Virtual credit cards vs. digital wallets

What's the difference between virtual credit cards and digital wallets? A digital wallet is an app you can download that houses your debit and credit card information securely. It can be used as a form of contactless payment both online and in-person, as long as the merchant has the right equipment.

Like a chip credit card and virtual credit card, a digital wallet provides a one-time token or code to complete the transaction. Your credit card number and account information are hidden from the merchant and any potential hackers that can get data during a cyberattack.

Not all digital wallets work the same, whether you use one from your credit card issuer, Apple Pay, Google Pay, or another app.

Also: How business owners can protect their businesses from cybercrime

Pros of virtual credit cards

  • Added security: Online thieves can't easily access your real account or credit card information with a virtual credit card number. This means if there's a breach, you likely won't have to close your existing card, get a new one, and then reset your recurring transactions.

  • Convenience: Virtual credit card numbers can be created instantly, so you never have to wait if you're making an impromptu purchase and want your personal data protected. You can also set spending limits and expiration dates, adding more flexibility to virtual credit card usage.

  • Can be used one time or multiple times: While some virtual credit card numbers are meant for one-time use, others can be used repeatedly, like the Capital One assistant Eno extension. 

  • Transactions are posted to account statements: When you make an online purchase with a virtual credit card number, it shows up on your account statement just like a purchase made with the physical credit card, as long as both are linked. 

Cons of virtual credit cards

  • Not for in-person use: Though this may change in the future, for now, virtual credit card numbers can only be used to shop online or over the phone. If you must have a physical card to make a purchase, then a virtual credit card number isn't an option.

  • May have trouble with refunds: If you need to return an item for a refund, you could run into trouble when using a virtual card number. Some retailers will only return to the original payment method, which may not work if the card number has since expired. And if you make an in-person return and you can't provide the physical card to match the number used, you may have to settle for store credit or make an exchange instead of a return. If your virtual credit card number isn't linked to your credit card account, this can also happen.

  • Could complicate reservations: If you make travel reservations online using a virtual credit card number, it could complicate check-in for your hotel, flight, or rental car. If the company requests your card to confirm the reservation when you check-in, you might have to call your card issuer or bank to verify the transaction, as the reserving company can't access your account any other way.

How do I set up a virtual credit card?

Setting up a virtual credit card can differ by the issuer. For most, you'll log into your account line and go to your account settings or cardmember benefits section to request a virtual card number. You may have to download the issuers' app or use it more than once to access the card number.

How do virtual credit card numbers work?

Virtual credit card numbers work just like a physical credit card number, except you can only use it online or for other card-not-present transactions, like making a phone purchase. You create the virtual credit card number through your bank or credit card issuer, then use it in place of the physical card number when making a purchase.

How safe are virtual credit card numbers?

Virtual credit card numbers are safe when making purchases because you aren't giving a merchant your real credit card number. Even though a virtual card number can be seized during a data breach, you won't have to cancel your card, request a new one, and then reset your card information for recurring payments. Instead, you can simply report any fraudulent transactions and cancel the virtual card number if it's still active. Plus, virtual card numbers are one -ime use unless you set them up to be used more than once.

Can I use virtual card at ATM?

You cannot use a virtual card at an ATM because the physical card needs to be read by the ATM to access your account.

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