Shop Online Safely With Temporary Credit Cards

Almost every time we write about fraud or identity theft, savvy readers will point out in the comments that many card companies offer temporary credit cards—virtual accounts tied to your real one that expire after one use, or a few days, or after a certain spending limit is reached. We thought it might be a good time to remind readers about these services, as well as password-protected and so-called “anonymous” credit cards.

Temporary Cards

Citibank calls them Virtual Account Numbers, and offers the free service as a browser-based or downloadable desktop app. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to offer the service on its debit cards. Bank of America customers can take advantage of a similar service called ShopSafe. American Express used to have a temporary card service, but shut it down in May 2004.

If you have a PayPal account, starting this month you can use PayPal’s Secure Card service (formerly called the Virtual Debit Card). It’s “a single-use [MasterCard] card each time you make a purchase online or a multiple-use card for more than one purchase on a specific website.” It’s now available in the U.S. and will be rolled out to other users in the future.

Discover uses something called Deskshop. As with Citibank, there’s both a browser-based version and a downloadable app for your desktop.

If you’re not sure whether the bank that issued your card offers a similar service, call them or take a look around the help site. But be prepared to do a little digging—the CSR we reached at Citibank had no idea what we were talking about.

One thing to remember for any temporary card: Citibank’s help section points out that you shouldn’t use them for things like online movie tickets, because when you go to pick up the tickets, your credit card won’t match the transaction details. Oops, no movie for you.

Password-Protected Cards

Although not temporary cards, both Visa and Mastercard offer extra security programs: Verified by Visa and Mastercard SecureCode let you assign a unique password to your card to prevent unauthorized use. Unfortunately, these programs only work with participating retailers, so the protection they offer is limited.

Anonymous Credit Cards

If you’re the early-adopter type who wants to try something totally new, Revolution Money is calling itself “the industry’s first anonymous, PIN-protected credit card.” The company was founded by Steve Case and Ted Leonsis, both from AOL, along with former bigwigs from Charles Schwab, Mastercard, and the U.S. Treasury. In addition to a free online payment service that competes with PayPal and Google Checkout, the company offers a credit card that, according to the CEO of TrustedID, “contains no personal information on it or stored inside it. That way if it gets in the wrong hands, nobody can connect it with you.”

If you know of a specific bank that offers temporary credit cards, please post the information below. The banks tend to hide this info, so it’s not always easy to find even if you’re an existing customer.

Virtual Account Numbers [Citibank]
ShopSafe [Bank of America]
Deskshop [Discover]
Secure Card [PayPal]
Verified by Visa
Mastercard SecureCode
Revolution Money

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(Photo: Getty)