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What Is a Virtual Credit Card Number and How Does It Protect You?


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Online shopping is convenient, but it does open you up to the possibility that someone will steal your credit card information. Whether someone intercepts your internet traffic or hacks a website you shop on, your data could get exposed.

If someone gets access to your credit card info, they could start using it to make purchases without your permission. You can almost always get the charges removed from your account, but you’ll also have to deal with the headache of getting a new card shipped to you and updating your payment information everywhere you use the card.

Want to avoid all that? One way to keep your credit cards secure is to use a virtual credit card number.

What Is a Virtual Credit Card Number?

A virtual credit card number is a unique card number that is associated with a specific credit card account. You can use your virtual credit card number in place of your real credit card number when making purchases online.

Any purchases made using your virtual card number are put on your real credit card’s account, but you don’t have to give an online merchant your real card number. Because you don’t use your real card number to make purchases, you don’t have to worry about your card being compromised.

Using a virtual credit card number is different from swiping your real credit card in person or adding it to a digital wallet or payment app like Apple Pay. Most importantly, a virtual credit card gives you control over how much you spend and how long the card remains valid with a particular merchant.

For example, if you’re only making a one-time purchase, you can create a virtual card number that’s only valid for a day or two. That way, your actual credit card account remains secure even if someone later gets access to the virtual card number you created.

Similarly, you can limit how much you can spend on a particular virtual card number. This is also useful for one-time purchases whose amount you know in advance — and for setting a budget if you’re making multiple purchases with the same virtual card number. 

It’s also useful for recurring purchases, such as subscription services. You can set a limit that’s just large enough to cover the subscription cost each month. In any case, a spending limit ensures that your card won’t fund a spending spree if it falls into the wrong hands.


How Do Virtual Credit Card Numbers Work?

Virtual credit cards work just like regular credit card numbers. Once you generate a virtual card number, you’ll get all of the information that you need to make purchases online, including the card number, CVV, and expiration date.

You can use a virtual credit card number on any website that accepts credit card payments. You can even add a virtual card to a digital wallet or payment app if you want. They’re indistinguishable from normal credit card numbers for online shopping and payment purposes. 

When you make a purchase using your virtual card, the amount of the purchase gets added to the associated card’s balance. At the end of the statement cycle, you’ll get a single bill that combines your virtual card charges and regular card charges with no distinction made between them. 


How Do You Get a Virtual Credit Card Number?

Getting a virtual credit card number is easy. Many card issuers offer the option directly through your online account portal. Issuers that let you make virtual credit card numbers include Citi, Capital One, and Wells Fargo. Some credit card companies like Visa, Mastercard, and American Express also offer tools to speed up the checkout process and that automatically use virtual card numbers without you having to set one up yourself.

If your card issuer doesn’t let cardholders create a virtual account number, you’re not completely out of luck. For a reasonable fee, websites like Privacy.com let anyone create virtual cards that they can use online. You can even use these services to create virtual account numbers for a debit card.

Typically, there’s no additional application process to get a virtual card number. As long as you have a credit card account and available credit, credit card issuers will let you generate a virtual account number.


Pros and Cons of Virtual Credit Card Numbers

Virtual credit card numbers are a great tool for boosting your financial security and peace of mind, but there are downsides to consider too.

Pros of Virtual Credit Card Numbers

Virtual credit cards are useful for a few reasons. For example, they can help you secure your credit card accounts and control your spending by setting spending limits for different virtual cards.

  1. Protect Your Account Information. If hackers steal your credit card number, you need to replace the card and update your card information everywhere you use that card. If you use virtual card numbers, you only have to deactivate the number that falls into the wrong hands. You don’t have to request a completely new card and account number. This makes dealing with credit card fraud much easier.
  2. Set Apending Limits. You can use virtual card numbers to control your spending. For example, if you use a virtual card on a site like Amazon, you can give it a $100 per month limit. Any purchases over that amount will get declined, making it easier to control your spending.
  3. Reduce Data Tracking. Companies and advertisers track almost everything these days. If you use the same card in multiple places, that data can be tracked. With virtual card numbers, it is harder for your online activity to be tracked.

Cons of Virtual Credit Card Numbers

Virtual credit card numbers have lots of perks, but they don’t solve every problem related to credit card fraud.

  1. Not Offered By Every Card Issuer. Some credit card issuers, like Discover, don’t offer virtual card numbers. That means you’ll have to use a third-party application to generate these numbers.
  2. No Physical Card. Virtual account numbers are designed to be used for online purchases only. You can’t create a physical credit card with a virtual card number, meaning your in-person purchases will still use your true account number.
  3. Does Not Completely Eliminate Fraudulent Purchases. If someone does get access to your virtual credit card number, they can still use it to make purchases provided you haven’t set very restrictive spending limits. You won’t need to get an entirely new credit card to recover from the fraud, but you’ll still have to work with your card issuer to get the bad charges removed.

Final Word

Virtual credit card numbers give you some protection against unauthorized charges and having to deal with the hassle of replacing a credit card after a fraudulent purchase. While they can’t fix every problem related to identity theft, they can give you an extra layer of security.

Online fraud is a serious issue and it’s important to take steps to protect yourself. Virtual card numbers are one tool you can use to stop identity theft, but there are many others that you should think about taking advantage of, including freezing your credit, checking your credit report regularly, and signing up for an identity theft monitoring service.

TJ is a Boston-based writer who focuses on credit cards, credit, and bank accounts. When he's not writing about all things personal finance, he enjoys cooking, esports, soccer, hockey, and games of the video and board varieties.

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