Shop Safely Online: Use a Virtual Credit Card Number

A virtual credit card, sometimes referred to as a temporary credit card or throw away credit card, is a credit card number that is generated by your credit card issuer, on your behalf, for temporary use.

You don’t actually get a physical credit card with this number. You simply use the number for an online transaction and then it expires.

Some virtual numbers can be reused at the same retailer/merchant over again, and some are good for a month anywhere. Most virtual card services today are built into an Internet browser app so you can make numbers on the fly without even leaving the online store.

Why Would You Need a Virtual Credit Card?

Most people don’t feel like they need to use this service. It’s not used that often. However, credit card issuers provide them and encourage you to use them to cut down on the amount of credit card fraud. As you know, with a credit card, you’ll only be liable for up to $50 of bogus transactions. Therefore, most people don’t bother with using this service.

However, I’ve learned that if someone steals your credit card information, and then is able to match that up with your other personal information, you could experience lots of identity theft down the road. You may not want to run the risk of getting that started.

One use for these virtual numbers is to use them when you’re signing up with a free trial offer. Let’s say you want to get your free credit score and report. As you know this service is free for only a month.

You have to opt out of their monthly service or you will be charged on an ongoing basis. If you were to use a virtual credit card number on this site instead, you would never run the risk of being charged the continuing fee.

Of course, there may be some legality issues here. I’m not suggesting you do it. I’m just saying that this is what people use virtual credit card numbers for. You should know that if you use the virtual number for these purposes, you run the risk of issues between the merchant and your credit card issuer, which may cause a freeze on your account.

How to Find a Virtual Credit Card

It looks like the primary card issuers with virtual credit card services are Capital One, Citi, and Bank of America. Discover is no longer providing it. And if you don’t bank at one of these places, be sure to check out

Alternatives to the Virtual Credit Card

There’s more than one way to shop safely online. In addition to the virtual credit card number, you can use an online payment service like PayPal and Google Checkout to create an additional layer of protection. These systems come with their own protection issues though, so make sure you understand how you’ll be protected when using them.

You could also shop with one of the free prepaid credit cards. Unlike a regular credit card, a prepaid card uses your own pre-loaded funds. Therefore, you always know how much is on the card and how much can be used if someone were to use it fraudulently.

Have you ever used a virtual credit card number? How do you shop safely online?

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About Philip Taylor, CPA

Philip Taylor, aka "PT", is a CPA, blogger, podcaster, husband, and father of three. PT is also the founder and CEO of the personal finance industry conference and trade show, FinCon. He created this website back in 2007 to share his advice on money, hold himself accountable (while paying off over $75k in debt), and to meet others passionate about moving toward financial independence. He uses Personal Capital to track his wealth. All the content on this blog is original and created or edited by PT.


  1. use virtual all the time. love it. Citicards has it. would like to find another card that has it available.

  2. This service is really great. Just because I don’t think its really safe to use real credits card information on different site that are not trusted. So virtual credit card is great and let shop anywhere without revealing our credit card information

  3. I am representing a small community bank.
    Does someone know a company that would help us to develop this type of service for our customers?
    What I mean having our cardholders sign in to the bank’s network, and not a third party provider to get the Virtual Card number?

  4. Use Citi VAn for items like magazines sites, Vistaprint, or unfamilar vendors.
    Always set a small limit and 2 month expiration. Works well.

  5. This is the first time I have even heard of this service. It would figure that the banks offer this, but do not advertise it. I sometimes wonder if they have our interests in mind, or theirs.

  6. @Mike – Yeah, I hadn’t heard much about it either. You’d think they would promote it more since they bear the brunt of any fraudulent charges. I guess other safety measures take precedence.