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How virtual card numbers can help prevent credit card phishing scams

Only two card issuers provide virtual credit card numbers, but they can be helpful for consumers who want to avoid phishing scams and have ease of mind while shopping on the internet.

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Whether you've always been an avid online shopper or recently switched to virtual checkouts during the coronavirus pandemic, it's important to know your options for keeping your credit card information safe.

Some credit card issuers offer virtual card numbers to protect your real credit card number from phishers and hackers. A virtual card number is a digital copy of your credit card with a randomly-generated number that links to your account when you make online purchases. This creates an invisible buffer between bad actors and your real card number, making credit card fraud harder to pull off.

A virtual card number is different than an instant card number. The first is for masking your real card number, and the second is when a credit card issuer gives you an account number right away so that you can make online payments instantly upon approval without waiting for your physical card to arrive in the mail.

Right now, there are only two card issuers that offer virtual card numbers: Capital One and Citi.

Below, CNBC Select reviews which card issuers provide virtual card numbers so that you can have peace of mind while shopping online.

Capital One credit cards with virtual numbers

Using Eno®, Capital One's intelligent assistant portal, you can create unique virtual card numbers that are linked to your eligible Capital One credit cards. Create a virtual number for each merchant, which Eno can save to use again in the future. When you use a virtual number that's linked to one of your Capital One cards, it will be charged as though you were using the original account number.

It works like this:

  1. Select online checkout at your preferred merchant.
  2. The Eno browser extension will pop up when you're ready to pay and prompt you to sign in. 
  3. Eno will create a merchant-specific virtual number that will link to your existing Capital One credit card.
  4. Your payment information will autofill during checkout.
  5. Eno will save your specific virtual number for ongoing and future payments at each merchant.
  6. All charges will show up on your statement as they normally would.

Below are some of the most popular Capital One cards:

  

 

Check out our in-depth look at the best Capital One cards here.

Citi credit cards with virtual numbers

Citi allows select cardmembers to create a different virtual number for every website they shop. Every decoy number will link back to your main credit card account so that phishers and other fraudsters can't crack the code. And in case someone does manage to steal your virtual number, you can simply get a new one without having to replace your physical card. This feature is available for most Citi credit cards.

Here is how to set up a virtual account number with your Citi card:

  1. When you're ready to provide your purchase information at checkout, log in to your Citi account in a separate tab.
  2. Launch Virtual Account Numbers.
  3. Select "Generate" to obtain a Virtual Account Number.
  4. In the merchant's checkout form, input the newly generated credit card number, expiration date and 3-digit security code on the back of the card (if applicable).

Below are some of the most popular Citi cards:

 

 

View our full list of top Citi credit cards.

Alternatives to virtual card numbers

Though just a couple of card issuers offer virtual card numbers, a number of payment options such as Chase Pay® and Mastercard® Click to Pay allow cardmembers to store their card number in a secure wallet that you can access when you checkout at participating merchants.

Though digital wallets and secure payment apps are different than virtual card numbers, they provide another layer of protection because you don't have to enter your card information every time you pay. However, not every merchant accepts digital wallets as a form of payment.

Bottom line

Phishers are fraudsters who try to record keystrokes to steal your sensitive information. Never enter your credit card information on a website or email you cannot verify, and always check twice when things seem off. When you shop with a virtual credit card number, you can easily replace it in the event of fraud without having to cancel the original card. This can help you out if a bad actor gets hold of your information, whether by infiltrating your favorite merchant or sending a scam email.

If you are concerned about phishing scams, monitor your credit statement and credit report regularly to put your mind at ease.

Learn more:


Information about the Citi Simplicity® Card, Citi Premier℠ Card, Citi Prestige® Card, and Capital One cards has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.