Go Virtual for Safer Online Shopping

How to Create a Virtual Card Number

Bank of America cardholders can create a virtual card number by logging in to the online banking site, clicking the View Options link to the right of the credit card account, and then choosing Create a ShopSafe account number. From there, you can set a spending limit and expiration date. Head to Bank of America's site for more on ShopSafe.

If you have a Discover card, you create a virtual number via Discover's Secure Online Account Number page. Discover also offers downloadable software for Windows that runs from the system tray. (Click the Download Now button under Desktop Version on the same Web page.) The software can pop up to allow you to create a virtual card number when you're making an online purchase, and it can fill in forms.

For Citibank, log in to online banking and click on Virtual Account Numbers in the upper-right corner. You can also download software by logging in to citicards.com or universalcard.com, selecting Get a Virtual Account Number from the 'Tools and Services' drop-down menu, and then clicking Download Now. Citi's software works much the same as Discover's desktop app does.

PayPal users can grab a browser plug-in for Internet Explorer or Firefox (only for Windows) by logging in to their account, choosing Products & Services, and then clicking the PayPal Plug-in link under 'More Products and Services'. The plug-in adds an icon to the upper-right corner of the Web browser with drop-down menu options to create a Secure Card virtual number and perform other PayPal tasks.

Virtual Numbers, Virtual Profiles

You can tie Shop Shield to any credit card or checking account. It creates not only a virtual credit card number but also a faux e-mail address, name, and other contact information for use with the number. You can create such profiles either at the company's site or through a Firefox add-on (installed as part of your signing up at the site; an add-on for IE is in the works). Once installed, the add-on recognizes shopping sites and autofill forms. Shop Shield offers a free level of service linked to checking accounts; a pay-as-you-go service for debit and credit cards ($1.99 per use, plus a $0.49 charge for transactions less than $25); and an "unlimited" service for checking, debit, and credit-card accounts, priced at $99 annually.

Soon, you'll likely be able to add some benefits of virtual numbers, such as spending limits and merchant restrictions, to regular credit cards and debit cards. MasterCard, which bought the company that licenses the software used for most virtual credit card offerings, says it is working on a service with both features. In the meantime, virtual credit card numbers will keep potential data thieves chasing a moving target.

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