Home > 2011 > Credit Cards

Worried About Online Security? Use a Temporary Credit Card Number

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The recent Sony PlayStation Network breach has spawned a renewed interest in single-use (also called disposable, secure or virtual) credit card numbers. A single-use credit card number is basically an alias for your actual credit card number.

Most of the major credit card issuers offer this service, but it goes by different names. Citibank calls them virtual account numbers. You log on to your Citi account and follow the steps to generate a virtual account number. When shopping online, you use this number instead of your real account number. Purchases that you make with your temporary number show up on your statement like all of your other transactions.

Each time you shop online, you log on to your account and generate a new single-use number. Each of these numbers is attached to the same credit card account. From a security standpoint, here’s the advantage: If someone hacks into one of the websites where you’ve shopped and obtains your account number, the hacker gets the temporary number you used and that number can’t be used again. Your real credit card number is safe.

A drawback is that these numbers expire. The length of time that the numbers are valid varies among issuers. Discover calls them secure account numbers and they expire on the same date that your actual credit card account number expires. Bank of America calls this service ShopSafe and their numbers expire after one year. So if you’re using one of these numbers for a recurring payment, you’ll need to update your account information when the number expires.

American Express and Capital One don’t currently offer this service. A spokesperson for Chase said that the issuer has a similar program for commercial accounts. Chase doesn’t currently offer this service to consumers but cardholders can use Verified by Visa, which involves keying in an additional password when you pay for an item. When you enter your card number, a Verified by Visa window appears. You enter requested information plus your password, and this verifies your identity.

Image: Fosforix, via Flickr.com

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  • http://www.sheilacallahan.net Sheila Callahan

    I’m going to check these virtual cards out. Thanks, great article.

  • Matt

    I use the Citibank VANs extensively. One of the reasons I really like it is because if the selectable dollar-limits and date-limits.

    So any number you generate is always locked to one merchant (whomever uses the number). But if you want, you can also generate a number that’s good until a date of your choosing (max of 12 months) and/or a dollar limit.

    So for recurring merchants (Netflix, car insurance, etc.) I just generate a unique number that’s locked to that merchant, make it good for 12 months, and put a dollar limit on it that’s about 12 months of expenses plus a little wiggle room.

    The last part that makes it great is that the expiration and dollar limits can be adjusted after the number’s been used. So if, after 10 months, everything is still good, then I just log back on and extend my “Netflix Card” for another 12 months and another $100 dollars and I’m good to go. No changes necessary in my Netflix account.

    • Ankan

      Do you not have to update your Netflix account with the new expiration date once you change it on your virtual card?


      Be careful. Citi jsut changed their accoung pages overnight and the virtual number generator doesn’t work. I spent 2 hours on the phone with a call taker and his manager trying to make it work and they can’t. It was a very bad software rollout.

      • Fred

        I didn’t have any trouble back in Oct. 2012, like you, but yesterday, Feb 6, 2013, they re-vamped their whole website, took away the downloadable VAN version, and require that you use the online only version. It doesn’t work on any of my machines (Windows, Linux, Android), and I too spent about two hours on the phone with customer support (obviously in India) to no avail. This will end my relationship with Citi.

      • Fred

        After emailing Citi, explaining that I have been a customer since 1990, have used their VAN for decades, and spent two hours on the phone with a useless guy in India after they broke their “online” system last week, I received the following email:

        We are pleased to inform you the downloadable version of our Virtual Account Numbers software will soon be available again for your use with implementation to be expected near the beginning of 2nd quarter. We apologize for any inconvenience the suspension of this service may have caused you. We will notify you once it is available and include instructions on how to re-download the updated version, which will include enhanced security features for your protection.

        I replied, explained that I have never used the downloadable system, and that the problem is with their “online” system and their useless technical support.

        The only reason I ever had this account was for the VAN, which is currently useless, and I see no hope in sight … Citi, we are done.

      • Fred

        So, in the interest of keeping the community informed about my dialogue with Citi … I got the following reply to my reply:

        We regret any inconvenience. We apologize for the difficulties you’ve experienced while trying to access the Virtual Account program. Our programmers are working on the issue you reported and we expect to have it resolved soon. Your patience is appreciated.

        I replied, stating that “I would be holding my breath while waiting for this to happen, so please hurry”. I wonder if tech. support in India will interpret that as a suicide threat?

  • Thanksbut

    Thanks but I REALLY wish capital one did this! I really need it and only citi cards, my other cards, seems to use it! damnnnnnnn, I really need a virtual number for my capital one card so I can order something before my renewed card comes in the snail mail USPS! Damn you CO!

  • Lynn

    I just got notified that my Discover card is cancelling that One Time Number feature. What a bummer. I’ve used it for years and loved it. Looks like it will be time to go shopping for a new credit card.

    • Beverly Harzog

      Hi Lynn–I was disappointed when I read your comment because I think it’s a great feature for those with Discover cards. I reached out to Discover and asked why they discontinued it. A spokeswoman told me that Discover felt its security measures were already secure enough, especially since Discover cardholders aren’t liable for fraudulent charges.

      Even so, in my opinion, the one-time card numbers are a nice additional layer of security. By the way, the spokeswoman also said you can continue to use the service until September 8th. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Lynn!

    • Shirley

      I’m disappointed with this termination too, and am looking for a replacement card that offers this feature.

      • Beverly Harzog

        Shirley–Most of the big issuers–except AmEx and Capital One–offer this feature. Visa offers “Verified by Visa,” which is described above in my blog. It’s different from a one-time number, but does add a layer of security.

  • Joe Hunter

    With respect to the Discover Card Secure Account Numbers feature: forget about it!

    I just got an email that they are discontinuing this very valuable service. They said that you have $0 fraud liability so it’s not needed.

    I disagree completely, and will be emailing and faxing their CEO to complain about the change.

    With the secure numbers you don’t have to worry about some dishonest employee at a firm trying to use your number at some other vendor. It would be rejected by Discover.

    Now it will be accepted by Discover and you have to go through the hassle of reporting it and getting the charge taken off your account.

    This is especially problematic to the elderly who may not examine their statements that closely.

    Plus, if you have your bill paid automatically, you will not only have to go through the trouble of getting it taken off your account, but also have to get a refund for the amount you paid automatically.

    NOT a good move, Discover!

    • Joe Hunter

      I forgot to add, the information I have found so far is that the CEO is David Nelms, with an email address of: davidnelms@discover.com and a fax number of: 224-405-4993.

      The fax would probably be better than a phone call to 224-405-0900

      • G. Wallace

        Hi Joe,


        Here’s an updated fax number to Discover Card Services/Corporate Office I obtained today 11/17/2011, if anyone wanted to fax something to David Nelms the CEO or anyone else at the corporate office: (801) 902-4568.


        Bonita Springs, Florida

    • Beverly Harzog

      Joe–You make some excellent points. I was surprised and baffled by this decision. There have been so many cyber attacks and there will most likely be more. I like the added layer of security that these numbers provide.

      A spokeswoman told me that existing virtual numbers that are stored in online shopping cards will remain valid until the expiration date on the cardholder’s account. But I think it’s best to check on this info for yourself. I see you already have plans to make your opinion known. Good luck!

      • Tom Conrad

        I also used this service extensively with Discover. In fact, it was the ONLY reason I had a Discover Card. I have ceased all on-line shopping until I can find a replacement. Neither of my other cards (Mastercard and VISA) have that service, because it is not offered by the bank with which I have the card. It is apparently up to the individual card issuer to determine whether this feature is included on their VISA or Mastercard accounts. I’d like to hear about any work-arounds. Interest rates don’t matter, because I always pay off my cards monthly.

        Thanks for publishing this information.


        • Beverly Blair Harzog

          Tom–While you search for a replacement, you can use Verified by Visa. It adds a password when you use your card online. The big issuers–except AmEx, Cap One, and now Discover–offer virtual card numbers. And good for you for not carrying a balance. That’s the way to use credit to your advantage!

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  • http://www.neworleans-bankruptcylawyer.com Steven J

    Many online sellers require an address connected to the card. So the card will need that also

  • Bill

    Discover has added the virtual card service back. So all is good, they actually listened to those of us that complained to them.

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  • Shaun

    This is a great idea for online purchases, but with all of the skimming going on, is there a way to secure card present transactions besides paying with cash? The merchants sometimes don’t even know their credit card reader has been tampered with.

  • Sam D

    Citi’s Virtual Account Numbers is truly a fantastic feature, esp. if using their downloadable desktop version. This version allows for the application to automatically appear whenever it detects a check out page (you can disable this) and also auto form-fills your billing/shipping and credit card info (very cool!).

    The main thing to understand regarding $0 liability for unauth charges is that it does not absolve you from proving to the credit card company the charges were not yours. There is the hassle factor that you need to account for, often times requiring paperwork to be completed and sent back as well as repeated phone interviews as your credit card company investigates the case. Why would you want to deal with this? Fraud DOES happen and actually more and more as hackers get smarter.

    When you use a VAN, you can close the number on the app right after you use it…talk about a way to nearly eliminate any potential for fraudulent use. Imagine if every time you used your plastic in the offline world, you could just throw it away and a new card appeared in your wallet?! That is essentially what you can do with Citi’s VAN.

    Check it out and let me know your thoughts.

    • Don

      How do I make the virtual account number active for just ONE time use only (no auto pay)?
      I see no place to indicate that this is what I want.

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  • http://gmail.com Ruti

    I don’t have any credit card, master card or visa card because it is not used yet in my country and never exit till now so what should I do to enter the Social Security Number


  • http://gmail.com Ruti

    I come from Kiribati and I don’t think I have a state at all

  • iul

    Citi down for a month and says they may not bring it back

  • Grady

    I just tried to use the BOA ShopSafe. I spent nearly an hour on their website following dead links and even did an online chat where they told me to call the credit card team. The service makes so much sense, but B0A has thus far left me hanging without even knowing how to get started.

  • Frank


    The Citi Virtual Account Number provides false security. We used the virtual account and still got charged fraudulently.

    Then I found this link which confirms that even expired virtual numbers can get charged.


    • Dale

      Only create a dollar amount for a dollar more than whatever you are buying and then a 2 month, (the shortest time they allow), lifetime for the VAN. Chances are very slim you will get a fraudulent charge.

  • Shorty

    BofA is giving me the run around on this service. It is been ten days and they have no resolution as to why the service is not working for me. I alternately get “you must log in to OnLine Banking first” (duh, that’s where I came from) and “sorry, your account is not eligible for this service. (I have several BofA accounts ant they all say the same thing.) The agent told me that my account WAS elibible.

    I think they are trying to bury it.

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  • Gordon

    An alternate approach may be to buy a pre-paid card ( the kind sold in drugstores and markets) to use for online purchases. You would not be at risk for any greater amount than that which you paid for the card. The only problem with this might be having an address connected with that card.

  • Former Citibank Customer

    Shorty: think only BofA is trying to bury it? For years the service from Citibank was outstanding. They even had a nice Windows app “citiucs.exe” that provided all the convenience. Around October of 2012 they suddenly went crazy and pulled the plug on the Windows app, forcing everybody to go through the gazillions of efing clicks on their website. A couple of weeks ago (i.e., January 2013) they went even crazier and now force everybody to go through some kind of “activation code” hoops calling phone numbers listed on the account – this, by the way, does not work for me – there must be a bug in their JavaScript code that makes this impossible. I spent half a day with their inept tech support who in the end were unable to resolve this :( :( So, no more Virtual Account Numbers from Citibank for me. This really sucks. I wonder why all this sudden craziness; did they get hacked? Well, they are just pissing off legitimate customers to no end. But thanks to this thread I learned about similar services from Discover. Great! So, bye, bye Citibank, f.u.

  • Yet another former Citibank

    Very interesting thread. I quit Citibank today as well over this. Seems kind of dumb if they REALLY intend to re-establish it that they wouldn’t have included that in the announcement – which was quite terse. I’m not convinced they really intend to do this as they continue to make the online version more and more difficult to use or find. They’ve moved the link on their page at least twice since they discontinued the PC version. Bad decision, bad implementation of the decision, one gets the impression they want VAN-centric customers to leave.

    • Fred

      Hmmm … I agree with your final observation, but what “announcement” are you talking about? I didn’t see any announcement, I just went to use it one day, as I always do, and it no longer worked.

  • Muhannad

    if the virtual card expired and later on you returned the item purchased with this card, can the refund still be posted to the expired virtual credit card?


    • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

      Hi Muhannad – One of the potential drawbacks with temporary card numbers is how to deal with returns because it can make the process a bit more complicated. How returns are handled really depends on the individual issuer, and is an important question to address if/when you do request a temporary/virtual number. One work around is to request the number remain valid for an extended period of time — long enough to insure that you’re satisfied with the purchase and there aren’t any defects in the product. This would depend on the item you’re purchasing — whether it needs to be a week, a month, or possibly longer. However, we’d first advise checking with the issuer to see what their individual policies are and how they handle returns so that you know for sure beforehand. (Excellent question, by the way.)

  • Sam

    Discover just announced they are dropping their Secure Online Account Numbers (again). The generator will be turned off February 6, 2014, and all remaining numbers will be deactivated March 15.

    • Steve

      I received that notice, and – unless they change their corporate mind again – I will be putting my Discover card on ice. I use Discover wherever it is accepted, but the reason I have Discover is the secure numbers feature. If I can’t have that feature, I will collect my awards balance and store the card just on general principles..

  • davejoson

    I’m going to cancel all my Chase credit cards because they don’t offer temporary one-time credit card numbers. Everyone should do the same!

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