Why Choose a Virtual Card? They Might Be Your Secret Weapon Against Fraud.
There are many reasons why someone might be interested in a virtual credit card. For starters, they tend to be fairly simple to use. They can be more secure and private, too; the appeal there should be obvious if you’ve ever been a victim of a fraud attack in which your account information was compromised.
All that said, obtaining a virtual credit card can be a lengthy process. Not every network offers them, and not every card will be ideal for every consumer.
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What is a Virtual Credit Card?
- Virtual Credit Card
A virtual credit card is a temporary proxy card ID that serves as a stand-in for a permanent account number. Virtual credit cards are typically limited to a predetermined amount of transactions (often just one), and are designed to automatically expire within days or hours of issuance.
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A virtual credit card is also sometimes referred to as a virtual account number or a virtual card number. In essence, a virtual credit card is a single-use digital card number that can be used in place of your traditional credit or debit card at checkout.
Virtual cards often feature customizable spending limits and expiration dates that can be locked or deleted according to your needs. This helps prevent fraudulent purchases from affecting your main credit card account.
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How Do Virtual Payment Cards Work?
Virtual credit cards link to an existing account through a series of randomized account number digits. At checkout, you can enter a temporary 16-digit credit card number rather than the physical card details.
Virtual cards are similar in many ways to the tokenization technology employed by EMV chip cards. Both use a temporary token in place of cardholder data.
After a transaction, an EMV chip card still exists as a physical object. A virtual credit card, on the other hand, ceases to exist entirely. So, even if a fraudster manages to steal your card data, that data is useless once the card number expires.
So, how are virtual credit cards different from mobile wallet apps like Apple Pay and Google Pay? The most significant difference is that the latter is still geared for brick-and-mortar transactions, and the former is predominantly used for online purchases. However, since more online stores have begun integrating mobile wallet options at checkout, this difference is slightly less obvious.
Mobile wallet applications rely on similar technology to process payments. However, the usage is entirely different. Payment apps use tokenized data, but still retain your actual account details to verify and process transactions. Virtual card numbers, in contrast, are randomized to conceal or protect that information during checkout. Your true account details are removed from the process entirely.
Benefits of a Virtual Credit Card
If you're wary of sharing your card details at checkout, then virtual credit cards provide several benefits. These include spending controls, enhanced fraud protections, and of course, anonymity. Virtual card numbers provide greater privacy for consumers and merchants, and also protect sensitive information from unauthorized data tracking.
Aside from the more obvious benefits listed above, virtual card numbers feature additional perks as well:
Sounds great…so where’s the downside? Alas, like all good things, virtual credit cards do have their share of drawbacks to consider.
Are There Any Downsides to Virtual Credit Cards?
For one thing, returning items purchased with a virtual card could be challenging. Most brick-and-mortar stores require consumers to insert or swipe the card used in the original transaction to process a refund. The return may be rejected according to store policy if the card is unavailable.
Some retailers may supply you with a store credit or a gift card with proof of purchase. A cash return will be unlikely, though, and refunding the money to the account used could take time to confirm and process.
Another issue to keep in mind is what you intend to use the virtual credit card for. If used for subscription purchases or recurring billing, you must update the card information every time it expires. Otherwise, the subscription service could be canceled for nonpayment.
Finally, obtaining a virtual credit card can prove to be a minor hassle, depending on the card network or issuing bank. Some issuers may require you to log into your banking account through a desktop computer, specifically, to set up a virtual card number or make significant changes to an account. At the same time, some smaller issuers may require users to call in to arrange setup.
How To Get a Virtual Credit Card
Thankfully, most major credit card companies now provide the means to set a virtual card number directly from your banking app. This comes along with several options for customization and management.
First, you should note that you can’t get a virtual credit card without an established credit account. Virtual credit card numbers are connected to existing credit or bank accounts, mainly through Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. Discover, in contrast, have discontinued virtual cards entirely in favor of their own security features.
If you have a credit card account with an applicable credit app, you should be able to attain a virtual credit card through the following method:
Step 1 | Navigate to Account Settings
Once in the account settings available in your credit app, you should be able to scroll down to a “Virtual Card Numbers” option. Click the link provided.
If your app does not include this feature, you may need to login into your account through a browser and use the search option to locate “virtual credit card” or “virtual card.” Other networks may have a designated app you must download to activate this feature, like Chase Pay.
If so, download and navigate to your account settings, then scroll down to open the “virtual credit card” option.
Step 2 | Identify the Reason Code
Once the 16-digit virtual card number is generated, tap “accept.” American Express will give you separate numbers for each merchant you intend to patronize, while Capital One and Citibank will provide you with a new number per request, even for the same merchant.
Step 3 | Customize Your Virtual Card
After accepting the card number and security code, you’ll select how long you want the card to remain valid and set your spending limit for the specific merchant. Some banks and networks may choose your expiration date for you if they approve multiple numbers for different merchants.
Sounds simple enough. But, what if your bank doesn’t offer virtual cards, though?
Supposing your bank does not offer virtual credit cards, you may be able to find a provider that would work with your account. Masterpass, PayPal, and Visa Checkout grant access to virtual account numbers, regardless of your account issuer.
The Top-Rated Virtual Credit Card Options
Once you get past the initial investigation stage, setting up a virtual credit card is actually quite simple. For example, if your network doesn’t offer virtual credit cards (as is the case with Discover), many options pair with your account, or you might consider switching for future use.
According to users at Upgraded Points, these are the top five virtual credit card options for 2022:
$95 Annual Fee
$0 Annual Fee
- 2% cash-back (1% when you spend and 1% when you pay your bill, earned as ThankYou Points)
$395 Annual Fee
$95 Annual Fee
$0 Annual Fee
Do Merchant Policies Inhibit Virtual Card Use?
Cardholders taking proactive steps to minimize criminal fraud risk? Sounds like a merchant’s dream come true! And yet, despite the benefits of virtual credit cards, some remain hesitant. Only one in five travel managers have reportedly embraced them, for instance. What’s the holdup?
The problem seems to be that most people just don’t understand virtual card numbers. Potential users can’t see the benefits of virtual cards because they don’t know what they are or how they work.
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Merchants, too, are an obstacle to broader adoption. To demonstrate, imagine a business traveler using a virtual card provided by her travel manager. The hotel needs the card to verify and is not prepared to accept a virtual option. In these cases, the travel manager often faxes a copy of the physical card to the hotel to conduct the transaction.
The scenario above presents multiple problems. Not only does it add friction to the transaction process, but faxing and storing cardholder data is a non-PCI-compliant security risk. A physical copy of the customer’s credit card could easily be stolen and used by an employee or even a third party who happens to get ahold of the paper.
Faxed card data stored in a merchant’s system can also be stolen. With data breaches being an increasingly common occurrence, storing a trove of cardholder data is like sitting on a time bomb. It’s also a potential violation of data-management provisions like the GDPR. If brought up, this could result in hefty fines for the merchant.
Virtual credit cards can alleviate these problems. But, before they can catch on, we need buy-in from multiple points in the process: merchants, managers, and the C-suite, as well as banks at both ends of the transaction.
The Bottom Line
The good news is that many major merchant service providers now offer virtual card terminals to accept virtual credit cards, both in brick-and-mortar locations and online. Plenty of merchants operating in the travel industry can benefit from the fraud protections offered by virtual payment cards, simply by calling their processor.
Virtual credit card acceptance is a great tool to simplify customer interactions and provide long-term fraud reduction. Remember, however, that no single fraud strategy is perfect. Merchants must employ a diverse range of tools and practices to minimize risk.