One of downsides of shopping online or over the phone is not knowing whether you can trust an unfamiliar seller with your credit card information. What if they're a con-artist? What if they sign you up for things you didn't order? If it's a membership service — what if you don't want an automatic renewal?
If you have a credit card from certain major banks, you might have a free security solution you don't even know about.
They're called virtual credit card numbers.
Capitol One recently launched a new service called Eno. CitiGroup offers Virtual Account Numbers for select cardholders. Bank of America's service, which is the oldest, is called ShopSafe.
A virtual credit card number is a temporary number that automatically links to your primary card number.
When you type in the temporary number at check out, the money is charged to your primary card but only the temporary number appears online.
"It's the first I've heard of it." said Lee Lew, who shops online between 5-to-12 times a month.
Lew told KOMO News he never knew he had the extra security option.
"It's funny, considering that I have credit cards from two of the banks that you mentioned are doing this program. But until you mentioned it to me, I had no idea," Lew said.
Each service is slightly different, but they have the same goal — increased security when you shop online or by phone.
Thanks to chip readers it's harder for hackers to steal your card information at the point of sale, so hackers are increasing their attacks on internet and phone transactions, and where your card is not present.
If your information is hacked with a virtual account number you only have to cancel the virtual number instead of getting a brand new primary card.
But some people question whether the benefit is worth the effort of setting up a virtual number account.
"To me, whether it's my existing card number that got hacked, or a virtual number that got hacked — obviously you don't want either — but at least in both cases it's pretty easy to correct," said Ted Rossman, Industry Analyst at CreditCards.com .
It took Lew less than 10 minutes to set spending limits, create a virtual number and order a sound bar for his television.
"Success! Order's been placed! Hallelujah," said Lew.
Lee says he can see advantages of the virtual card number, especially for small businesses or in cases where a vendor is unfamiliar. He says he might use virtual numbers more often.
"I'd be willing to give it a try," Lew said. "Whether I stay with it is going to depend on how well it works, and, frankly, how much of a hassle it is."
Transactions made with virtual card numbers appear on your statement with the transaction details so you can keep track of them.
According to CreditCardInsider.com, card issuers say returning items you've purchased with with a virtual number should not be a problem; just make sure you keep receipts and follow instructions.
CreditCardInsider also suggest booking hotels and car rentals with a virtual number might pose a challenge, since those companies typically ask to see the physical card that you used to book the reservation, and the numbers won't match.
Bottom line: If you're a cardholder with Capitol One, Bank of America or certain Citi cards, check to see if you have the virtual card number option and if so, learn how it works.
Virtual credit card numbers don't prevent fraud, but they do offer an extra layer of security for many cardholders who don't even know they're available. And they're free.