Anyone who has found a great deal on an unknown website has probably felt the same bit of angst. Do you make the purchase and hope the site’s secure? Or pass up an amazing buy out of concern your credit card information may become vulnerable?
The solution may be to use a masked credit card. Also known as virtual credit cards, privacy cards or burner cards, these aren’t physical cards at all but rather disposable credit card numbers that can be used once and then discarded.
Online privacy company Abine was one of the first to offer credit card number masking when it introduced its MaskMe product in 2013. Abine now calls its service Blur, and it is no longer the only one on the market. A number of options now exist for disposable credit card numbers and using one could make online shopping safer.
What is a masked credit card?
A masked credit card refers to a disposable number that is generated to make a purchase. It doesn’t require creating or opening a new credit card account. Instead, it is an added layer of protection for your existing accounts.
Depending on the service or bank you use, masking a credit card could involve creating a unique number for each purchase or making multiple virtual numbers with each designated for use at a particular merchant. You may also be able to request a masked credit card number and keep it infinitely.
During the checkout process, you provide the masked number, expiration date and security code. While the merchant will never see your real card number and data, the transaction will be posted to the linked account.
How do I get a masked credit card?
You’ll need to either be a customer of an institution offering virtual credit cards or sign up for a service that offers credit card number masking.
Major banks and credit card issuers offering credit card masking include:
- Capital One through its Eno app and desktop browser
- Citi on select credit cards
- U.S. Bank for corporate credit card customers
- American Express through the Amex Go app for business customers
If your bank or card doesn’t offer virtual credit cards, you can mask a card through services such as the following:
- Abine Blur
- US Unlocked
These companies operate differently, with some masking existing credit cards and others requiring you to load money to their platform which is then used to fund virtual credit cards. There may be a fee for some services. Be sure to carefully read the fine print before signing up.
How to mask your credit card number
The process of masking a credit card can vary depending on which service you use. However, you will generally follow these steps.
- Sign up for a masking service – That may mean opening an account, downloading an app or installing a browser extension.
- Enter your credit card or load your account – If your service isn’t already associated with a specific account – such as an eligible Citi credit card – you may need to either add your credit card number or add funds to an account that will be used to generate virtual credit cards.
- Request a virtual credit card – When you are ready, request a virtual or disposable credit card. This will generate the number you can use during checkout, and the process is often instantaneous. In many cases, these cards may be set up to limit the amount that can be charged, where they can be used and when they will expire.
- Shop as normal – Once you have your masked credit card number, you can use it to shop as normal online.
Pros and cons of masked cards
There are more upsides to masking a credit card than downsides. Some of the benefits of virtual or disposable credit cards include the following:
- Enhanced security: By far, the biggest benefit of masked credit cards is the increased security and privacy they provide. Masking means your real card number is never revealed to a merchant. Some services will also ensure none of your personal information – such as your address or telephone number – gets attached to the transaction either. By keeping all this information out of the hands of merchants, you reduce the chance of fraud or identity theft in the event of a security breach.
- Greater control over employee/authorized user spending: Masking also provides safeguards for businesses who give their employees cards or cardholders who have authorized users on their accounts. Virtual credit cards can be limited to certain merchants, amounts or time frames. All are options to avoid overspending.
- Spending limits: Even if you don’t have employees or authorized users, you may find disposable credit cards help you stick to your budget. Often, you can attach spending limits to card numbers and that can help you stay on track financially.
There are few downsides to credit card number masking, but here are two reasons people might be inclined to skip these services:
- Inconvenience: It could be inconvenient to use a different credit card number for every merchant or purchase. However, the level of inconvenience may vary by service provider. For instance, Capital One’s Eno browser extension makes it easy to get a disposable number without leaving your shopping screen.
- May interfere with rewards: Depending on which service you use, masking a number could change how transactions are reported to your card issuer. That, in turn, could affect any rewards you may receive from your card, such as bonus points for certain spending categories.
Are masked credit cards really safe?
Yes, masked or virtual credit cards are considered a safe way to shop online. However, be sure to use only a reputable company for masking services, especially if you will be providing them with your credit card number.
Look for reviews and a company’s history before signing up. If a company’s website offers little information and reviews aren’t available, that could be a red flag.
For now, masked credit cards are a good way to securely shop online, but most aren’t designed for in-person purchases. Instead, credit card holders making offline purchases should watch their statements closely for suspicious charges that could be a sign of a compromised account. And maybe eventually, a service will become available to bring masked credit cards out of the virtual world and into the real one.