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

“Online shopping options offer credit card safety” []
“Revolution Money – Formerly GratisCard” [PaymentsNews]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. stubblyhead says:

    When my wife (then girlfriend) told me that one of her cards offered this service, I was blown away. It just seems like such a no-brainer idea, and what a great way to add peace of mind to online shopping. I have a USAA and a Chase card now, and I don’t think either one offers anything like this. When I called USAA to ask about it, I don’t think the guy on the other end had any idea what I was talking about.

  2. Gopher bond says:

    Discover has a cool option on the website (and downloadable) that generates one-time use numbers. I use it all the time.

  3. davere says:

    It’s the only reason why I keep my Citibank card.

  4. ftrain says:

    kinda bummed that Amex doesn’t offer its service anymore. i would’ve used it this holiday season.

  5. FLConsumer says:

    FIA Card Services (the old MBNA) has this feature. I’d use it but their card only pays 1% back. My Wachovia VISA pays 1.5% and doesn’t offer this feature, but who cares — it’s their problem if the # gets abused, not mine.

  6. Myotheralt says:

    What about the Green Dot cards i have seen at walmart?

  7. kimsama says:

    I use the Shopsafe one all the time, ever since it was a feature on MBNA cards (that BofA acquired). Seriously, if you have one of their cards, use it. I always feel safer knowing I can limit my risk up-front, and also I don’t give my real CC# to retailers, who may keep it around TJMaxx-style for years (haha, it’ll be useless in a month, suckas!).

  8. DallasDMD says:

    Another thing one-time use credit cards are good for – those sneaky merchants that do recurring billing without making it clear that the bill actually is recurring.

  9. STrRedWolf says:

    Just be careful with Paypal, even when getting a temp credit card. They have you connect through Doubleclick for most of the site. Check the Security Now podcast, #119, off of [] for more details.

  10. tasselhoff76 says:

    I had a minor issue using a virtual account number through Citibank a while back. The product I ordered had to be returned and the merchant could not credit back the charge to the virtual account number. There was also a bit of a problem with me remembering what my virtual account number was to match it up for them. They ended up having to call up Citi and Citi rigged it so I could get my money back but it was a huge hassle, but good in the right circumstances.

  11. Beerad says:

    That’s my question — what happens when for some reason (such as a return) you need to know the number used to charge the purchase? Are these saved on your computer somewhere? I like the idea, but it seems like there would likely be complications…

  12. cv says:

    At least with BofA/MBNA’s ShopSafe, it’s easy to view historical ShopSafe purchase activity (date, payee, amount, temporary CC number) online.

  13. Ray308win says:

    Unfortunately, if you use these to order items online through Best Buy or Circuit City, they both require you to present the actual card used in the online purchase to validate the purchase. If you use the “Temporary Card” method to order online for In-Store Pickup, they won’t let you pick it up because their system will show a different credit card was used.

  14. muddgirl says:

    I have used BofA’s ShopSafe virtual card number with my BofA visa card. You set the spending limit and the expiration date, and they give you a number that you can easily track. It didn’t take much longer than just typing in a number off my card; I use it whenever I shop from an online vendor for the first time.

  15. CarlR says:

    Just a clarification that the DiscoverCard secure online account numbers are “single merchant” numbers, not “single use” numbers. From the Terms of Use :

    “The function provides you with a unique number (your “secure account number”) that is only valid for purchases made with the merchant to whom you provide it. Any transactions involving your secure account numbers are subject to the terms and conditions set forth in your Cardmember Agreement. THERE IS NO LIMIT TO THE NUMBER OF TIMES THAT THE SECURE ACCOUNT NUMBERS MAY BE USED, THE TIME PERIOD WITHIN WHICH IT MAY BE USED, OR THE TOTAL DOLLAR AMOUNT THAT MAY BE CHARGED TO IT…”

  16. Imaginary_Friend says:

    @RAY308WIN – Two more reasons not to shop at BestBuy and Circuit City! j/k.

    @TASSELHOFF76 and BEERAD – The Citibank website also allows you to view your Virtual Card purchase history, which lists the merchant names, amounts, and dates of your purchases. Just click the “Advanced” link after you login.

  17. arcticJKL says:

    Most of the malls here have gift cards by Visa. They are supposed to be valid wherever visa is accepted. (Not just at the mall like they want you to believe)

    I just get a couple for online purchases.

  18. jaxun says:

    That RevolutionCard looks like a great idea. I think I know how they really keep it secure though. It’s accepted… nowhere. Yes, the card that can’t actually be used to purchase anything is indeed secure.

    Seriously, I hope it takes off. Great idea whose time is at hand.

  19. Parting says:

    Cool, impatiently waiting to get this on my cc.

  20. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    Citibank’s virtual numbers aren’t available to any former Associates cards that were transferred to Citibank.

  21. Boberto says:

    Get a virtual number from any credit card company. Report it lost. They’ll send you a new one in 2 days with a new number.
    I do this when I buy something that is likely to have recurring charges that will never get reversed.

  22. dmm76 says:

    The systems used by Citi, Bank of America, PayPal, and Discover are the same Orbiscom system. The only difference is the name.


  23. furball says:

    @STUBBLYHEAD – I’m also a USAA cardmember. I contacted them regarding virtual credit card numbers, and they sent a response (on a weekend!). It seems to be a standard form response but specifically tailored for this particular request. Judge for yourself:

    “Thank you for expressing interest in a disposable or one-time use credit card number. Currently, we do not offer this type of service with your existing credit card account. However, thanks to feedback from our customers such as you have provided, this product is under consideration. Should it be approved, we will make it available to our customers as quickly as possible.”

    They’ve been great to my family and to me for many years. Hopefully they are actually taking this particular request seriously.

  24. Chumgrinder says:

    Four years later, our choices for virtual credit card numbers resemble a blasted heath.

    PayPal’s offering is dead. Revolution Money isn’t accepting new members, wasn’t virtual in the first place, and since they are PIN-based, they won’t work online anyway. Discover’s offering is nothing but a virtual window into your real credit card account, with no capability to set amount or time limits or to rescind the virtual number. Bank of America’s offering MAY be the only useful one still left, but if you don’t agree to their draconian eCommunications Disclosure, you can’t get online to generate a virtual number.

    Well, it was fun while it lasted.