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Virtual Credit Cards Tout Safety, Yet Consumers Take a Pass

Convenience of regular cards trumps enhanced security for many shoppers

Getting a virtual credit card

One upside of virtual credit cards, besides their security features, is that they're free.

To use one for an online transaction, you first must obtain a single-use credit card number from your credit card company, if it offers them.

American Express did away with its virtual card offering a few years ago. Now, only a handful of major banks offer virtual cards, and their numbers are dwindling.

Citi still offers disguised credit card numbers, known as VAN or Virtual Account Numbers, to its clients who are shopping online or by mail order.

Bank of America provides its online banking customers with a service called ShopSafe that lets people make secure Web-based purchases, as well as ongoing monthly payments, with a virtual credit account.

But Discover, which had long offered virtual cards known as Secure Online Account Numbers, is discontinuing them as of March 14.

"Regrettably, the technology on which Secure Online Account Numbers are based is owned by MasterCard and no longer available to us, so we are unable to continue to offer it to cardmembers," Discover said.

Suppliers of virtual cards use proprietary technology from a company called Orbiscom, a Dublin-based payment processing company that was acquired by MasterCard in 2009.

A tough sell to consumers

Ben Woolsey, president of, says it's difficult to get consumers to master all the basic benefits of a credit card, let alone more complicated offerings like virtual cards.

"Regardless of how much banks tried to advertise the availability of this service, they couldn't break through a certain limited awareness of virtual credit cards by their customers," Woolsey says. "Not to mention overcoming the inertia of going through all the necessary steps to set them up and use them among those who are aware," he says.

And even among those individuals, there's typically only "a certain subset of users who would care enough to sign up," Woolsey says.

Woolsey says several other issues have also prevented these cards from gaining widespread popularity.

"They can make returns and disputed charges with merchants problematic," Woolsey says. "With most returns [of purchases] made with a credit card, stores refund it back on a card. But they can't with a one-time use number."

Depending on a merchant's return policies, store credit may be issued in lieu of refunds. In other cases, consumers may be able to get refunds by check.

Next page: Consumers should remain vigilant. »

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