So-called “virtual credit card numbers” were widely adopted in the early days of online shopping to give consumers confidence when placing orders online. The logic was simple: by allowing customers to create a single-use, time-and-balance-limited credit card number for a single purchase, banks eased customer’s fears of their payment information being compromised, making them more likely to use their credit card online rather than, heavens forfend, using cash at a physical retailer. Between interchange fees and interest charges, issuers calculated they could easily afford the additional overhead if virtual credit card numbers were able to drive increased credit card usage.
That calculus changed over the years as card issuers eliminated liability for unauthorized purchases, cardholders became more accustomed to disputing purchases, and 24/7 access to transaction history became near-universal. Few people today need to pore over their paper statements each month matching receipts to transactions in order to detect fraud, and disputing transactions has become a matter of a few mouse clicks with most of the major card issuers.
Consequently, over the years most banks stopped offering virtual credit card numbers, and newer banks never started. That left Bank of America, Citi, and Capital One as the three major card issuers that still offered them with all their credit card products.
But on September 5, 2019, Bank of America announced they would retire their virtual credit card number system “ShopSafe” two weeks later, on September 20.
Why I love virtual credit card numbers
Like a normal person, I don’t use virtual credit card numbers for “online shopping.” Instead, I’ve found them most useful for subscriptions to services that are cumbersome to cancel. The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s periodically offer increased portal bonuses for creating a digital subscription, and you can earn the bonus for each subscription through each shopping portal, making for a cheap 10,000+ miles and points, albeit spread across multiple programs. And of course spouses, kids, and pets are also welcome to participate.
So far so good. The problem is that these subscriptions can only be cancelled over the phone, and these calls can last for a very long time as you try to communicate your subscription information to the underpaid call center employee on the other side of the world.
The solution, for me, is virtual credit card numbers. Create a number with $10 or so on it, pay for all the subscriptions you need (they cost me about $1.06 each with tax), then delete the number. No muss, no fuss.
Unfortunately, my Citi accounts were closed last year, and I’ve never had a Capital One credit card, so Bank of America was my go-to source of free virtual credit card numbers.
Virtual credit card workarounds
Obviously the most straightforward solution if you’re in my position is to open a Capital One credit card, which I suppose I’ll do when the right signup bonus comes along, although I don’t spend very much time chasing signup bonuses in general. If you still have Citi credit cards, then nothing at all will change for you for now. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe those products aren’t on borrowed time as well.
A more straightforward option is to use prepaid debit cards. You may have to register the card online to use it to create subscriptions (although you may not), but once the initial transaction has been processed you can empty the remaining balance through your normal liquidation channels.
The loss of Bank of America ShopSafe virtual credit card numbers isn’t the end of the world, but it’s as good an opportunity as any to remind readers that Wall Street Journal and Barron’s subscriptions are great opportunities to score plenty of miles from home on the cheap — as long as you can get around calling in to cancel your subscription.