Why Virtual Credit Card Numbers Aren't Worth It

Nov 07, 2016 | 23 Comments

Virtual credit card numbers are designed to keep your banking information safe when you shop online. While they can offer a sense of security if you're worried about hacking, they're not always a perfect solution. We take a look at why you shouldn't use virtual credit card numbers.

Bank data breaches seems to make headlines every other day and having your credit card information stolen can create a number of financial issues. Using a temporary card number can keep your data out of the hands of identity thieves.

You can use Bank of America's ShopSafe by signing in to your online account.
If you are a Bank of America customer, you can use "ShopSafe" by signing in to your online account.

Bank of America and Citi both offer customers the option to use a virtual number when completing transactions online. Bank of America calls it ShopSafe while Citi card's Virtual Account number makes an account number "virtually impossible to steal" while shopping online.

These numbers are generated randomly and you have the option of setting a maximum charge amount and an expiration date so it can only be used for a set amount of time. That sounds pretty foolproof but if you use virtual card numbers or you're thinking of trying it out, there are some potential problems you need to be aware of. Here's why virtual credit card numbers aren't worth it.

Verifying transactions can be a headache

There are a couple of situations where using a virtual credit card number can be a nuisance if you need to verify your account information.

If you're reserving a hotel room online, for example, you'll be asked to present your card once you show up in person. The same goes if you're trying to rent a car. If the hotel or rental agency's policy requires you to pay with the same card that you booked your reservation with, that virtual card number suddenly becomes a stumbling block.

Was your credit card automatically closed due to a data breach? Here's what to do.

Plan on jumping through hoops for returns

Typically, when you buy something online you have to return it the same way and the merchant just credits the refund back to the card you used at checkout. If you used a virtual account number, getting your money back isn't as clear-cut. Depending on the retailer's policy, you may have to accept a gift card or check in lieu of having the money put directly back on your card.

That's inconvenient to say the least and it can become even more so if the merchant requires you to provide additional documentation to make sure that you're actually the one made the purchase in the first place.

Keeping your original receipt and making note of the number you used may cut down on some of the hassle but you could still end up waiting longer than you normally would for a refund to be processed.

Transactions can still go through after the number expires

Virtual card numbers can be used one time only or you can an expiration date for up to 12 months in the future. Once the card number expires, any additional charges that are applied against it should be denied, but that's not always the case. For example, if you set up a recurring payment with a virtual card number, it could still show up on your credit card statement regardless of when it expired.

On the flip side, you've got another problem if payment isn't processed correctly because the temporary number is no longer active. If that happens, you've now got to go to the trouble of updating your card information or getting a new virtual number, not to mention you may be get hit with a late fee for the missed payment.

Virtual credit card numbers are free to use but you may pay a price in terms of convenience. Image via Shutterstock
Virtual credit card numbers are free to use but you may pay a price in terms of convenience. Image via Shutterstock

They only work online

If you spend a lot of time shopping online, using a virtual number can make you feel secure but they don't eliminate the possibility of your card being hacked when you hit the gas pump or shop at your favorite stores.

Once you've swiped your card through the reader at the checkout, retailers have your information which means hackers can get it too, if they're savvy enough. Home Depot, Michael's and Staples serve as lessons on how easy it is for your credit or debit card number to be compromised.

They don't offer any additional liability protection

If someone steals your credit card number and uses it to make fraudulent charges, the most you're responsible for is $50. That means if an identity thief runs up a $10,000 credit card bill, you won't be responsible for paying it off.

Using a virtual credit card number doesn't give you any additional liability protection and if the temporary number is stolen, you'll still have to go through the same dispute process to avoid paying the price for any unauthorized transactions.

Tip: Opt for credit over debit whenever possible to minimize your fraud liability. If you wait too long to report a stolen debit card to your bank, you may have no way to recover any money the thief makes off with.

Final thoughts

While virtual credit card numbers can act as a buffer between hackers and your banking information, using them isn't always convenient. Adding your credit or debit cards to Apple Pay can shield your account numbers and you have the added benefit of being able to use these apps online or in the store. Unless you're just extremely skittish about entering your card information online, using a temporary number may be more trouble than it's worth.

For another take on this topic, read more if virtual account numbers may in fact be worth it for you.
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Wednesday, 01 Mar 2017 4:15 AM
<p>These are all non-issues. All of them.</p>
Sunday, 05 Feb 2017 6:55 AM
<p>Exactly. I've never seen anybody refuse my money before. As you say, the whole purpose of the credit card in advance is to set the car or room aside for you, and they can take your money if you flake. Once you actually show up to claim the car or room, they could give a rat's arse about which form you pay, so long as you pay.</p>
Sunday, 05 Feb 2017 6:45 AM
<p>That last thing you mentioned is a really good feature for say a gym membership or an insurance premium that is slow or hard to cancel -- as long as you've fulfilled your contractural agreement with them, you just pull the plug.</p>
Thursday, 19 Jan 2017 7:24 PM
<p>I find using Virtual Numbers a true convenience. You use it and throw it away. You don't have to worry about your actual credit card number floating around for years, subject to theft. The reasoning against them is pretty weak; "Verifying transactions can be a headache", keep your receipt. Also, know what venues will require an actual booking credit card number. Plus, if you have a receipt, transaction number, there should be no problem verifying your booking; "Plan on jumping through hoops for returns", with CitiCard, I have never had to "jump" through hoops for returns. CitiCard is developed enough to apply any returns to your account, even vis an expired Virtual Number; "Transactions can still go through after the number expires", that seem to be a programming issue. I have never had that trouble with CitiCard, and in fact have had to renew numbers I put expiration dates on; "They only work online", great, if they only had one you could carry around that had changing numbers; "They don't offer any additional liability protection", so. The standard liability protection is fine, plus you don't have to worry about it floating around the internet for years.</p><p>Final thoughts... "Unless you're just extremely skittish about entering your card information online"; yes I am extremely, extremely skittish about putting my credit card number online.</p>
Thursday, 12 Jan 2017 5:27 PM
<p>I've been using Citi Virtual for more than 10 years. Refunds, no problem, rental cars and hotels, no problem.</p><p>The default mode is that they are single use numbers that expire the next month. If the vendor tries to charge you twice, the second one is rejected.</p><p>You can use it for toll tags/recurring fees by setting a dollar limit and an expiration date up to a year in advance. Or, you can just set a max amount, usually a dollar more than quoted, just in case.</p><p>A card on file for a vendor, no problem, just set the limit to a few dollars.</p><p>The only problem I have is sometimes when I order multiple items from Amazon, they attempt to charge the number more than once.</p><p>Also, you can shut down any number that you've previously been issued at any time.</p>
Wednesday, 11 Jan 2017 10:39 PM
<p>I have used Virtual Numbers for YEARS and they have been such a PEACE of MIND...</p><p>until NOW!</p><p>The damn BofA ShopSafe is now NOTHING but a COMPLETE NIGHTMARE!</p><p>First of all... There is NO FORMAL INSTRUCTIONS. You sortta click on Use ShopSafe and generate the number and use it. Now the damn BofA INCOMPETENCE forced you to add PRAYING in the steps. I complied. Sometimes, my prayer worked and the charge went through. Sometimes they didn't. Whenever I called BofA to complain, they always INSISTED that they were not the problem. There was one time, I deliberately stayed on the phone for TWO HOURS with some IDIOT who insisted that they're not the problem and it was the vendor and then repeatedly asked me if he had solved my problem and asked me to hang up the phone if he did. I said I would not hang up the phone because he didn't solve my problem and the IDIOT stayed on the phone with me for TWO HOURS just to repeat the same ONE LINE. Apparently, they think it's still 1990s and they would be able to run out my cell phone minutes. Thank God for TotalWireless calling plans (unlimited). Eventually, the IDIOT hung up the phone on me upon which I filed a written complaint to the bank and subsequently got ignored by them as usual.</p>
Wednesday, 11 Jan 2017 4:57 AM
<p>I find the reasoning behind this article pretty flimsy and using cherry-picked situations to knock the concept. Not to mention factually wrong. Along with the other errors pointed out below: Virtual numbers can be used online or on the phone. Transactions on expired card numbers, if they even happen, are the responsibility of the issuer. Why would the issuer offer MORE liability protection for this service? Wouldn't that be a red flag that the service ISN'T as reliable?</p><p>I guess someone had an article quota to fil...</p>
Wednesday, 11 Jan 2017 4:51 AM
<p>I use these to STOP recurring payments. Simply put the expiration month as the next month so a year later when they auto-renew or whatever hits, it's rejected. Works every time.</p>
Sunday, 01 Jan 2017 10:06 AM
<p>Pure BULL... <br>When you do a car rental reservation or even taking the car out, or a hotel reservation or book-in, they ask you for a CC to make sure that you have a valid CC and to make sure that have enough available balance; they will put a "HOLD" in you cc balance, that is VERY DIFFERENT to MAKING A CHARGE in your CC. <br> NOBODY CAN or WILL; but NOBODY; in ANY HOTEL OR RENTAL CAR COMPANY... for ANY REASON whatsoever when the final payment moment comes;... FORCE you to use ANY SPECIFIC CARD.<br>You can use ANY other VALID CARD or legal tender CASH when the moment comes to make the final payment of the total amount due to them.<br>Even another person with a valid cc and ID like my wife, or my father, or even a friend or associate, present at the counter, can pay the bill for me... <br>Is this person thinking that we are stupid or what ?</p>
Wednesday, 28 Dec 2016 4:39 PM
<p>"...Never had problems booking room or renting car"</p><p>How does that work when, as she mentioned, they will ask you to present the card you used but you don't have one with the virtual number?<br>Thanks</p>
Saturday, 17 Dec 2016 1:47 AM
<p>I have used virtual account numbers for years and they do work extremely well to prevent fraudulent use of your real credit card information. A merchant I was using had their system hacked and several fraudulent transaction were run through on my virtual account...but they all got rejected because of the limits that had been placed on the virtual account number. The main thing though is I was only able to trace it back to the vendor because that was the only vendor that had that account number. And when I asked them if they had been hacked they said nope. So they did not even know about it??? or they where trying to hide the fact that their system was compromised...either way it would not have been possible to determine which company was responsible for mishandling my information without the use of the virtual account numbers.</p>
Sunday, 23 Oct 2016 2:23 AM
<p>I've used 'virtual' numbers for years with no real problems. Most are without time or dollar limits, but I do use them for '1st time' online purchases. The only problem I ever have is with Amazon and the purchase of multiple items. They sometimes do that with multiple charges. The virtual number stops that MOST of the time but has allowed multiple charges from Amazon on occasion.?? With high or unlimited credit card limits, using virtual numbers does offer security that you won't have with stock numbers.</p>
Saturday, 22 Oct 2016 4:23 PM
<p>I agree Jessica, basically what you're saying in the article is there is still no foolproof option offered by banks that secures your account. A VAN is a great starting point, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay are also. I'm weary with putting my actual card numbers on anything. Had a recent debit card hack and hadn't used my debit card for anything online or in person for almost a year. That was scary because even after hitting card was lost/stolen the transactions were still rolling in until it drained my account and all it took was 30 minutes of the theft doing this, and they were in person transactions, my debit card was with me and the person doing it was apparently in Cali while I'm in Missouri. Sad that we can't just have a protected financial life.</p>
Friday, 21 Oct 2016 8:40 AM
<p>Extra bonuses of virtual credit card numbers:<br>- if you create virtual credit card numbers for each transaction, both you &amp; the credit card company know exactly which company's database was hacked to steal your virtual credit card number<br>- so many credit card dumps these day, and when that happens, you don't have to cancel your credit card and deal with multiple companies needing to get a new number. you set up individual virtual numbers for each company or each transaction, and limit the use of the underlying credit card number</p>
Monday, 17 Oct 2016 7:52 PM
<p>I have used both BofA Shop Safe and the Citi virtual numbers. No problem at all, and excellent peace of mind. Sure, with sites like PayPal and other sites where you will authorize future payments you need to supply them with a new account number once a year or if you hit your set limits but it's no big deal. It just takes a few minutes. The fact that you can put a maximum spending limit on them is great. When I get notice from a merchant that the card is no good (either expired or no limit) it shows it's WORKING! I have had identity theft more than once, and ANYTHING YOU CAN DO to prevent just one occurrence is absolutely worth while.</p>
Sunday, 09 Oct 2016 5:08 PM
<p>I really hate the part about how virtual numbers won't stop recurring payments. This would be a real bonus from a virtual number. Many companies make it difficult to stop recurring charges even though the contract says you can "cancel at any time". On a few occasions I have found recurring charges that I did not sign up for. Either way, its a hassle to stop these and get refunds. I should be able to cancel a virtual number and have all future charges blocked. After reading this article I tend to agree that there is no real benefit from virtual credit card numbers.</p>
Monday, 26 Sep 2016 2:27 AM
<p>Rebecca,</p><p>Please stop misleading people and advertising for Apple. Citi Virtual account number and BOA shop safe both protect your account and works awesome, I am using them since they first came out and never had any issues what so ever.</p><p>Cheers<br>AM</p>
Monday, 26 Sep 2016 2:23 AM
<p>She is basically advertising for Apple Pay, Why not Samsung Pay or Android Pay.</p>
Sunday, 25 Sep 2016 12:17 AM
<p>Wow! So what she's saying is that <br>1) when you use a virtual credit card number, you should make the amount equal to (or a dollar more than) what is needed to buy at the moment. Ummmm... duh.<br>2) You can still get hacked when NOT using a virtual number. (And she considers that a NEGATIVE trait of virtual card numbers!?!?)<br>3) Your virtual number can get hacked and used for other purchases.... ummmm... again, set the amount as $1 more than what you need for the purchase, and this can never happen. <br>In short: She's clearly being paid by someone that does NOT offer virtual numbers (and I think we know who...)<br>Obviously, those banks that DO offer virtual credit card numbers are so popular that this kind of garbage has to be spewed.<br>I've been using virtual numbers for many, many years, and I've NEVER had a problem (and I do almost ALL of my shopping online!).<br>Hopes this helps those that might otherwise be taken in by this poorly-written propaganda.<br>And after you get yourself a virtual-account-number-capable credit card, head over to spamgourmet dot com (or any other email protection site) and get yourself set up to never be bothered by idiots like those supporting the perpetrator of this article, simply because you have an opinion.</p>
Thursday, 22 Sep 2016 5:59 PM
<p>I agree with the others here as well as the comments (removed) from the last version of this similar article. Citicard virtuals work good too and have been using it for almost 10 years with no problems, except for their system not working all of the time.</p><p>Rebecca must have something against BoA and Citicard since she's really trying (twice now) to convince people not to use them. It obviously is not convenient, that's just common sense. The point is that it gives people the choice to use it for those purchases where you don't trust the seller online. I always use it on Amazon and for those free trials, or groupon deals for $0.00 that still requires a credit card.</p><p>Anyways...go virtual for those who are careful with their money. That's probably a low percentage of society. Most people are bad with their money and in deep credit card debt so I wouldn't expect them to use virtual. Who knows, convincing people to use virtual might actually help them out by being smart with their money!!</p>
Thursday, 22 Sep 2016 5:29 PM
<p>Here's one killer use for virtual credit cards: You probably know a company or two that gives you a month or two free trial, but require they have a credit card on file and will auto renew at the end of trial period and expect you to remember to call them before the trial expires.</p><p>Just give them a virtual card number. Huge hassle saved !</p><p>And like Ski mentioned returns were never an issue. BofA let's to specify upfront if you intend to use a virtual number for recurring payments. So no issues there either.</p>
Tuesday, 20 Sep 2016 6:14 PM
<p>I have found Bank of America ShopSafe to be extremely useful in dealing with recurring payments. Prior to getting my BofA cards, I sent multiple emails to cancel subscription with popular sports magazine that was on recurring payments. I even filled complaint against charge with American Express after intentionally not updating card number after new number was issued and the old card number passed expiration. I was only able to unwind this when I cancelled the Amex card.</p><p>I choses BofA cards specifically because of ShopSafe, and have been very happy.</p><p>I have used ShopSafe multiple times to pay for things with "convenient" auto-renewal that gave the control back to me to limit unwanted ongoing charges without having to worry to cancel on the right day to maximize benefits without additional charges showing up on my card.</p>
Friday, 16 Sep 2016 11:11 PM
<p>I've been using a virtual credit card from Bank of America (ShopSafe) for a lot of years now, and I can tell you first hand Rebecca really doesn't know what she is talking about. Much of the above info is dead wrong, and the rest is exaggerated. I've done hundreds of the transactions mentioned above and have almost never had the problems mentioned - in all the years using this feature, maybe a couple of times things didn't work as expected.<br>- Never had problems booking room or renting car<br>- Never had problems with returns<br>- Can't use generated number after expired even with recurring payments<br>- They not only work online, but over the phone transactions<br>- Regardless of the liability, the time spent reversing a false charge on a regular credit card is not insignificant. My wife recently spent about 12 hours over 3 months to get charges reversed</p><p>Also note you must be an iPhone user since you mention Apple Pay above but not Android Pay. And Android commands worldwide about 80% of the market share</p><p>Ski</p>