Over 230 million people shopped online last year.
If you’re one of those 230 million people, I’m betting you shopped online for a couple of reasons, but the biggest one?
Well, convenience doesn’t always equal security. That’s why we’ve all been using the same passwords for all of our logins for years.
If you’re looking to make your online shopping experience as simple and safe as possible, virtual credit cards might be the answer you’ve been looking for.
What are virtual credit cards?
A virtual credit card (VCC) is an online-only version of your debit or credit card. It’s not a physical card, but a randomly generated, unique 16-digit number (with its own expiration date and security code) connected to your real card. These numbers are temporary, so you can use more than one.
The main reason to use VCCs — which you may have guessed already — is to hide your real credit card digits. This helps protect you from data breaches, credit card fraud, and identity theft.
How do virtual credit cards work?
Your virtual credit card generates a new number (sometimes called a “token”) for each transaction you make. This number isn’t stored, and it can’t be used again.
In most cases, you’ll set up a virtual version of an existing credit card, which means there’s no credit check or application involved.
You can request as many virtual card numbers as you want (they’re stored securely, so no need to memorize them).
Each card servicer has a slightly different system, but usually, you’ll get one of two types of VCCs:
- Single-use VCCs, or numbers that expire after a single transaction.
- Recurring-use VCCs, or numbers you can store and use more than once (this can be helpful if you’re using them to pay for a subscription, for instance). Recurring VCCs are just as secure since they still don’t link to your real credit card data.
Some card issuers let you pick expiration dates for VCCs up to a year after the creation date; others choose expiration dates for you. And your card issuer may let you determine maximum spending limits for each VCC as well.
Where can I get a virtual credit card?
Many big banks and credit card companies offer virtual credit cards as a free amenity. If you’re unsure if your card issuer offers virtual cards, just give them a call and ask. Below are a couple of the easiest VCC options:
- Capital One – Capital One’s virtual assistant, Eno, has a browser extension you can download. The extension, which is connected to your personal Capital One card, will automatically generate your virtual card number when you shop online.
- Citi – With select Citi credit cards, you can enroll in Citi’s VCC program. Simply log in to your account, and you should be able to see if your card has a virtual account number option.
- Apple – The Apple Card offers a virtual credit card number through the Apple Wallet app. This card number is different than the one on your physical card, making it more secure.
Benefits of virtual credit cards
If a hacker or identity thief gets a VCC number, they won’t be able to make any purchases with it or connect it to other identity-linked data you’ve stored online. Even if your VCC number does end up in the wrong hands, it’s a lot easier to cancel a VCC than it is to close or reverse charges on a real credit card.
As a bonus, VCCs make it more challenging for advertisers to track your shopping habits.
How many times have you forgotten to cancel a subscription? (I’m looking at all you Planet Fitness members out there).
Using a virtual card to try out services that you know you might forget to cancel in the future is the perfect solution. Since your VCC number will eventually expire, auto payments won’t be able to go through, effectively canceling the subscription for you.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend this for those payments you know you want to make every month – your bills, your Netflix account, etc. You could be on the hook for a declined payment if your VCC expires and you don’t remember to reset it.
Accounts are easy to close
If your data does get compromised when you’re using a VCC, the temporary-number setup makes your life a lot easier. You can cancel the VCC without going through the hassle of getting a whole new credit card.
Cards work with multiple merchants
VCCs work across just about any online platform that lets you pay with a real card.
Cards can be shared
If you have a joint credit card account with a partner or family member, VCCs can help organize who’s spending what. A VCC with built-in spending limits can also be a good security tool for parents whose kids are old enough to make some purchases on their own.
Read more: Are Joint Credit Card Accounts a Good Idea?
How do you shop with a virtual credit card?
Shopping with a VCC is a little more complicated than shopping with your regular digits, but not super complicated.
Since they’re not physical or swipeable, VCCs can only be used for online shopping or phone transactions. But they should be accepted anywhere you can pay with your regular card online.
- Once you’re ready to make a purchase, you’ll log in to an account set up for your VCC. Some credit card companies have VCC browser extensions, apps, or sites for this purpose.
- Next, the account generates a unique card number and security code, which you’ll use to pay.
- If you have a recurring VCC, you can save these details for auto-payment next time on the same merchant’s website.
- Charges will show up on your credit or debit card statement as normal transactions, just like with a physical card.
Where can’t you use virtual credit cards?
Like many financial products, VCCs work best when they match the spending habits you already have. Virtual cards are great if you’re an exclusively online shopper, but if you shop in brick-and-mortar stores most of the time, VCCs might not be as helpful.
In-person pickups and returns
If you make a purchase online and pick it up later in person, merchants may want to confirm your identity by looking at a physical credit card — which, of course, won’t match the number on your VCC.
The same thing could happen if you’re returning an online purchase in person. Depending on the seller, you may have to settle for store credit instead of a cash back refund.
If you book a flight or hotel, rent a car, or buy event tickets online, you’ll probably need to provide the actual card used to book the reservation when you show up in person. The card numbers won’t match if you’ve used a VCC.
For events, you may be able to get around this requirement by printing out your tickets or showing the online confirmation page on your phone. But it’s usually better to use your real card and be on the safe side.
With shopping becoming more digital by the minute, virtual credit cards can keep your financial info a lot more secure on the web. They don’t replace basic safety measures like keeping an eye on your credit card statement, but they’re great for online transactions.
So, pair a virtual credit card with one of the most rewarding physical cards (and pay both off in full every month, of course), and your information will be a little safer.