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Virtual debit cards can help block thieves from your checking account

Using your debit card to shop online can be a risky proposition. Try a burner, instead.

Privacy.com, which started on Tuesday, lets users set up virtual cards that can be used for a single purchase or recurring charges at a specific merchant. Funds are drawn from a linked, existing bank account.

"When you look at millennial shoppers, the vast majority of them use debit cards," privacy co-founder and CEO Bo Jiang said. Earlier this year, a Bankrate.com report found that nearly two-thirds of younger millennials don't even have a credit card.

For holiday purchases, debit is still a big player. Among millennials, 56 percent plan to shop with a debit card, versus 41 percent of shoppers overall, according to a NerdWallet.com analysis.

That habit can be great for your budget, but it's one consumer advocates warn against with cyberthieves keen to capture your personal and financial information.


Online shopping with credit card
Getty Images

"Our spiel is, don't use debit cards. Period. End of story," said Beth Givens, executive director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group.

The reasoning: Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, your liability for unauthorized use of your credit card is $50 max. But debit cards fall under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, which bases liability on how quickly you report the fraud.

Even if you spot a problem quickly, your checking account will be missing that money while the bank investigates, Givens said. (Hello, overdraft!)

"If you're a victim of fraud, you could have to wait some time before your funds are replenished," she said.

Privacy.com aims to cut off unauthorized access to your bank account. Burner cards are one-and-done. Recurring-charge cards can only be used at that one designated merchant, Jiang said. A scammer who lifts the number from one site won't be able to use it anywhere else. You can also set caps on individual transactions or monthly use, limiting a thief's ability to leverage the card even with that retailer.

"Our spiel is, don't use debit cards. Period." -Beth Givens, Executive Director, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Closing a card prevents further charges, Jiang said. If you're owed a refund, however, that money makes it back to your bank account regardless of whether the virtual card number was one-time use or has since been closed, he said.

Virtual credit card numbers have waned in popularity over the years, but a handful of issuers, including Citi and Bank of America, still offer them, said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. Several prepaid cards offer users disposable numbers.

Cautious consumers might also look to using their preferred debit or credit card via third-party payment processors including Apple Pay, PayPal and Amazon Payments. Those services keep your card details secure, rather than sharing them with the merchant when you make a purchase, he said.

"It's really all just about making sure that these merchants have less of your valuable information," said Schulz.

But it's still on you to keep an eye out for fraud.

"Regardless of whether you use your real credit card number or a virtual credit card number, you still have the responsibility of checking your statements," he said.