Tech Talk: Virtual Credit Cards put online card requirements under your control

Friday, January 31, 2014

By Brian Boston

While leading a discussion on electronic books recently, an attendee raised a question about security. He didn’t like the idea of having his credit card “on file” with the eBook retailer. Unfortunately, most providers of eBooks devices and applications seem to require this. I recently tried to download an eBook from Barnes and Noble. Though the eBook was free, they still required a credit card on file to complete the transaction.

The Price of a “Buy” Button

It’s not just eBook stores. Anyone who has a iTunes account, buys apps for their tablet or smartphone, or uses Google Wallet or a Starbucks card often has a credit card on file. In a world where purchases are made with a single button, giving out your card info has become a necessity. While there are legal protections against fraudulent charges, it is still uncomfortable to not control your own credit card. 

The Flexibility of Virtual Cards

There are card companies who offer “virtual card” for customers in place of your regular credit card. CITI calls their program, Virtual Account Numbers. Bank of America’s service is ShopSafe.

Both these services let you set payment limits and expiration dates from one month to 12 months, providing the period is within the expiration date of your regular credit card.

Using ShopSafe

I used Bank of America’s ShopSafe and found that it works well, though finding the feature on the web was a bit challenging. To find Shopsafe in a current BoA account, go into your current credit card area after signing in to view your card activity. Then switch tabs to Information and Services. Finally click on ShopeSafe under Features to display ShopSafe’s activity window. From here you can create a new card number and manage any existing numbers you have created.


The ShopSafe activity window is built using Adobe Flash Player which does not work well for some mobile devices like iPads and iPhone but should work fine elsewhere. When I have had problem displaying the window, usually closing the web browser and logging back into the Bank of America web will solve that problem.

One requirement for ShopSafe card numbers is that they are tied to a specific merchant. Once you have used a card number to pay for something, that card can only be used at that place of business as a security measure. Fortunately, you have no limit in creating additional card numbers to use elsewhere.

Finding vCards

As useful as virtual credit cards are, not all credit card vendors offer them. American Express shelved their vCard plan a few years ago in favor of prepaid credit cards, a sort of debit card that you can load the card with cash for use. Discover has discontinued its Secure Online Account Numbers service, effective in February 

While prepaid credit cards provide a number of the same benefits as virtual credit cards, they may not be protected under the same liability rules as your regular credit card. You should check with your credit card vendor to confirm this and what kinds of virtual cards they offer.

Remember, it is not “real”

While virtual cards are great for online and telephone purchases, they do not include a physical card. As a result, you cannot use them for on-site purchases or a purchase that requires you to present your card to confirm merchandise pick-up.

That said, it’s nice to have a card number in situations where you would prefer to limit the time or amount available.

Do you have a technical question that needs to be answered or explored?
Please share it with me at brian@bostonlegacyworks.com.
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Brian Boston supported Microsoft products during his 18+ years with the company and now teaches, consults, and troubleshoots a wide range of software and hardware devices for Boston Legacyworks.


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