Living with credit

Virtual card numbers: safer, convenient and a spending risk

Kelly Dilworth

Virtual credit card numbers are a safer way to pay online, but they are not without risk – especially when a credit card number (traditional or virtual) is stored on a retailer’s website.

While the threat of card fraud is reduced with a virtual number, you may find yourself spending more than you intended. When your card numbers are already conveniently plugged in for you, it’s more tempting to overspend.

I was reminded of this safety-versus-convenience dilemma after reading about Capital One’s new virtual numbers, which work in concert with the bank’s virtual assistant Eno. The bank made a splash with its virtual numbers earlier this month at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Safety versus convenience

Capital One’s new service is similar to other virtual card tools that have popped up in recent years.

How Capital One’s virtual numbers work: Once cardholders download the Eno browser extension to Chrome or Firefox and link their existing Capital One credit cards, they can create unique, disposable credit card details for every website where they shop.

The safety factor: If an online retailer experiences a data breach, only that virtual number is at risk. With Eno, cardholders can ditch stored virtual numbers and create new ones. At no point is the number on their physical credit card exposed to hackers.

The convenience factor: The Eno browser extension automatically enters your virtual card details for you each time you use that retailer’s website.

The convenience of stored virtual numbers was intentional, Capital One’s Tom Poole says. People were unlikely to use the feature if they had to log into their Capital One accounts and go through a tedious process in order to make payments safer.

“Customers want security, but they’re not willing to sacrifice convenience to get it,” says Poole, a senior vice president of digital payments and identity. So the bank designed a tool that was not only more secure than traditional online payments, but also easy to use.

With some other card issuers, virtual numbers aren’t nearly as convenient.

Bank of America’s ShopSafe, for example, requires you to log into your account, search for ShopSafe (it’s not easy to find), click “launch” and provide the three-digit security code on the back of your card to generate a virtual number. Then you have to manually enter that virtual card number yourself wherever you want to use it.

The convenience-versus-overspending dilemma: For people like me who hate the inconvenience of getting up from the computer and grabbing a card, auto-filled credit card details are a big draw. But having that number already plugged in also tends to make me overspend – a problem I’ve repeatedly had to work hard to curb after realizing I was going over-budget.

For example, you may remember my blog post about how one-click online shopping lured this sleepy mom to buy more than we actually needed.

Capital One customers still have to do some work at checkout. Eno won’t enter your shipping information or billing details for you (you can have your browser’s auto-fill feature do that instead).

The state of virtual number payments

Capital One is far from the first company to make it easy to speed through checkout online. PayPal and issuer-specific digital wallets, such as Chase Pay, let you bypass pulling out your physical credit card when you want to purchase items online.

Other virtual card services, including and Token, also let auto-fill your virtual payment details.

In addition, some other major card issuers, such as American Express and Citi, feature similar services. AmEx Express Checkout, for example, provides a faster checkout service that assigns unique digital card numbers to each merchant that you visit online.

Citi, too, offers a virtual card service that will also auto-fill your details, but it is only available on select credit cards.

Discover discontinued its virtual card service years ago.

What makes Capital One’s virtual numbers unique is Eno, which helps cardholders manage their account information and pay bills via text without manually logging into their accounts. If the Eno browser extension catches on, it could lead to a much larger number of cardholders speeding through checkout with virtual cards.

Easier checkout can come at a cost

As consumers increasingly demand faster, more convenient services, retailers and other companies are coming up with increasingly creative ways to minimize the act of payment.

“That’s just the way the world is going,” Poole says. “People cite Uber as the ultimate payment experience because there is no payment experience.” Uber lets you skip the payment process altogether by automatically charging your fare to your account.

But payments made practically invisible isn’t a good thing for everyone. As more companies streamline payments, some credit card users may have trouble reining in their purchases. Research shows that easier payments can make you more susceptible to overspending.

If you are facing your own convenience-versus-overspending dilemma, you have some options. For example:

– You can deactivate one-click purchases. That’s what I did because I used to have so much trouble limiting my online purchases. I also unlinked my cards from PayPal.

– You can choose to key in your virtual card numbers. Sure, it’s old-fashioned, but the more inconvenient it is to pay for something, the less likely you will be to overspend.

Note: If you type in your own credit card numbers, rather than virtual numbers, every time you make an online purchase, be on guard for card fraud. Sign up for your issuer’s card alerts (whether you use traditional or virtual numbers).

See related: Poll: 94 million Americans store their card info online, Card-connected, web-enabled fridge replaces your sour milk


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