Editorial Policy

3 Ways to Protect Your Credit Cards When Shopping Online

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
May 22, 2009

With internet criminals getting smarter and bolder each day, there are more reasons than ever to stay proactive about online security, particularly if you frequently use your credit cards to shop online.

Before giving out your credit card information online, always look for the secure padlock icon on a website, which verifies that your credit card information will be encrypted and safe. Also make sure the website address begins with https:// instead of http://, again to indicate that it’s a secure website.

You may also consider taking some additional steps to protect yourself from online credit card fraud. Most leading credit card brands have begun to roll out increased security measures for online shopping. Here is an overview of the added online security measures offered by Visa, MasterCard, and Discover Cards and a review of which program offers the best protection for your credit cards.

Verified by Visa

The Verified by Visa service adds an extra layer of security when you shop online by adding an additional password known only to you. Once you’re enrolled in the service, whenever you pay with a Visa credit card at an online store that participates in the program, an extra authentication page will automatically pop up, requiring you to enter your unique password before checkout can be completed.

This procedure helps confirm that the person using the card information is actually you. In theory, once you’ve enrolled in the program, it will be impossible for a fraudster without knowledge of your personal password to use your Visa credit card for online purchases. We say “in theory” because until Verified by Visa becomes industry standard, fraudsters might still be able to use your card information for purchases at non-participating stores.

You can activate Verified by Visa for your card either at Visa International or during the checkout process at a participating online merchant. This is a fairly new service, so not all Visa credit cards offer the program. To see if your Visa card has the service and to activate your card, simply go to Verified by Visa and enter your card number in the activate field.

MasterCard SecureCode

Like Verified by Visa, MasterCard SecureCode provides users with a secret code, which protects against unauthorized use of their credit cards. Once you enroll in the SecureCode service, you get a private code known only to you and your bank. Then, whenever you shop online with stores participating in the SecureCode program, you will automatically be prompted to enter the added security code to verify that you are indeed the cardholder.

To find out whether an online store is participating in the program, simply look for the MasterCard SecureCode logo at the website or you can use the list of SecureCode Online Retailers provided by MasterCard.

Discover Cards Secure Online Account Number

Discover Card’s Secure Online Account Number service is different from the services provided by Visa and MasterCard. It involves encrypting your credit card number as you complete your purchase so that you can shop online without ever revealing your real Discover Card number.

Once you’re enrolled in the service, whenever you come to a website’s checkout area, a window will pop up asking you whether you want the Secure Online Account Number service to fill out the checkout form for you.

When you click “Yes,” the service links to your Discover Card account information and automatically fills in all the checkout information, including your name and billing address. It also automatically fills in the credit card number, with a bogus, encrypted credit card number which can only be recognized by Discover Cards.

This description is for the desktop version of the Secure Online Account Number service, which you can download and install on your home or office computer. Discover also offers a browser version, which can be used from any computer, anywhere you connect to the internet.

Which Service Offers the Best Protection for Your Credit Cards?

While both Verified by Visa and MasterCard SecureCode do add an extra layer of security to online shopping, both programs have one major weakness: not all online retailers offer these service. Indeed, if you look at the list of online retailers participating in the programs, it is still a very limited service. On the other hand, new retailers are being added all the time, so over time, as the services become industry standard, they will become increasingly useful.

For the time being, if you’re shopping at a site displaying the Verified by Visa or the MasterCard SecureCode logos both these services mostly offer you the assurance that you’re not dealing with a bogus website.. They do not protect you against online spyware that might siphon off your credit card information without your knowing. Neither do they protect you against fraudsters using your credit card information for online purchases at retailers not enrolled in the program.

Discover Card’s Secure Online Account Number program, on the other hand, is a simple added encryption service, not limited to participating merchants. This makes the Discover Card service both easy, convenient and most importantly, universally available for any online transaction you make. More importantly, should you have spyware loaded on your computer without your knowing, fraudsters will never be able to siphon off your credit card information, because only the encrypted, bogus credit card number will be displayed on your screen.

For more information on computer safety and how you can protect yourself, check out the FTC’s consumer information site, On Guard Online.