With more and more new stories about data breaches and rising digital fraud, it's reasonable to look into additional security measures to protect your credit information online. One option is a temporary credit card, also known as a virtual credit card, used at online retailers or over the phone.
Getting a Temporary Credit Card
To get a temporary or virtual credit card number, you first have to have a regular credit card account. On the one hand, this can be disappointing news if you don't have a credit card or have credit issues that make getting one harder.
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On the other hand, if you do have an existing credit card account, obtaining a temporary credit card is very straightforward. Since it's linked to an existing credit card account and is not a new account, there is no credit check and no impact on your credit score no matter how many you get.
To get one, first check whether your bank or payment company offers virtual cards (or other security options, discussed below). If your bank offers virtual card numbers, you should be able to access and generate them in the "security" section once you've logged in to your account. There, you will see any existing virtual or temporary cards and be able to manage those or request new ones. You may even be surprised to see that a temporary card or cards already exist there as part of the company's agreements with certain digital wallets or merchants.
What Is a Temporary Credit Card?
A temporary credit card is not an entirely different card from your existing credit card. Rather, it's a temporary number associated with your credit card that is used once, at a specific merchant or for a set period of time. It adds an extra layer of fraud protection and security but is only one among a number of options for protecting your financial information online.
Temporary cards can be available from issuers and banks, like CapitalOne and Citi, or from credit card payment networks, like Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express. However, it's important to know that temporary credit cards can still be compromised, but typically with much less damage done.
How a Temp Card Works
The temporary credit card will come complete with a randomly generated 16-digit number (different from and unrelated to your "real" card number), a security code and an expiration date. In some cases, you may be able to set the expiration date yourself. The type of temporary credit card you will be issued and what information you need to provide will vary.
Some companies issue you a new card for every transaction, and each card only works once. These typically have short expiration dates. Some companies issue one card per merchant, reusable until some set expiration date, usually a year. Others let you generate as many numbers as you want that last as long as you want. You may also be able to set a spending limit on the card, independent from the "real" credit limit on the "real" card, further protecting yourself in case of breach or fraud.
However, two things a temporary credit card does not come with are a physical card or a stable connection to your credit card account. These can be a real issue with reservations and returns, respectively. Hotel and rental car companies typically want you to present a physical card matching the one used to make the reservation, and you may be out of luck if you used a temporary card for that. And, when it comes to returns, merchants typically send the money back to your credit or debit card, which can cause problems if that was a virtual card. Luckily, credit card companies have come up with a lot of ways to keep you safe while retaining the convenience of a credit card.
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Security and Credit Card Companies
Credit card companies want you to feel safe using their services, and temporary or virtual credit cards are far from the only security measures they provide. In addition to physical security measures like the chips in modern cards, the best virtual credit card providers will also provide security alerts, dark-web and credit monitoring services, card locks and contactless cards and digital wallets.
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The services vary by provider, but most credit cards will employ a combination of measures. For example, while CapitalOne offers both card locks and a temporary credit card number, Chase provides multiple security measures on its site and an overview of digital payment options.
Digital wallets in particular are on the rise and are a great tool for your security arsenal. Examples of digital wallets include ApplePay and GooglePay, though some banks and credit card companies are starting to issue their own. Digital wallets employ a single-use token to complete transactions, so your credit card information is never shared. Unlike temporary credit cards, digital wallets are most often used in physical transactions, but a growing number of merchants, especially those with mobile apps, are accepting digital wallet payments.