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Credit Cards

Virtual Credit Card Numbers Cut Fraud Risk

Randomly generated numbers linked to your account means you won't have to carry your card.

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Worried about your credit card number falling prey to online breaches or fraud? A few card issuers have a solution: virtual credit card numbers. These randomly generated numbers are linked to your credit card, and you can use them instead of your actual card number for online shopping. That means your real number remains hidden from a merchant’s website.

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If you create different numbers for different online merchants, the fallout in the event of a breach is limited. With Capital One’s “intelligent assistant,” Eno, for example, your virtual numbers are saved in a control panel, so you can lock or delete individual numbers without affecting the rest of your spending. “EMV chips gave us protection against the cloning of credit cards, but a lot of credit card fraud has moved online,” says Beverly Harzog, credit card expert and author of The Debt Escape Plan.

Two issuers in addition to Capital One currently offer virtual card numbers on most of their credit cards: Bank of America, through its ShopSafe service, and Citi, through its Virtual Account Numbers benefit. You can create a temporary set of digits for one-time use or for multiple purchases with the same merchant, as well as for recurring purchases, such as Netflix subscriptions. Bank of America and Citi allow you to set expiration dates of up to 12 months in the future; Capital One numbers will expire in five years. Bank of America and Capital One say you will continue to earn rewards when using their virtual card numbers.

There are a few potential hiccups when bringing your virtual numbers into the real world. For example, you’ll need to keep track of virtual card numbers linked to recurring purchases to prevent missed payments. And card issuers say returning items purchased with a temporary number online to a physical store shouldn’t be a problem, but you should bring a copy of your receipt as back-up. Check with your issuer about whether paying in person for a hotel or rental car that you reserved online with a virtual card number will work.