Safer online shopping

buy_it_nowAs an employee in the IT industry, I’m required to change my network passwords every two months. It’s annoying, to say the least, but I understand that my company wants to take all precautions to protect its infrastructure, intellectual property, and reputation.

As an Internet user, no one is making you change your online passwords—Facebook, G-mail, Amazon, Netflix, eBay, etc.—but it’s still a very good idea to do so periodically. Every three months is a good target.

More importantly, if you have online bank accounts, or have provided credit card information to online vendors, securing your personal information is even more important.

Fear factor

hackerThe Internet continues to be a scary place. In the wake of recent news reports claiming that Russian hackers had stolen the usernames and passwords of 1.2 billion users—that’s BILLION—through a combination of various attacks on multiple websites, it makes one wonder whether using the Internet is even worth the risk anymore.

Surely, that’s a personal choice, but keep in mind that shopping at brick and mortar establishments is not necessarily safer.

Precautions are in order

I may be more technology-savvy than the average consumer, but, with a few precautions, there’s really no reason that a person can’t use the Internet safely.

locked_credit_cardPersonally, I’m a lot less worried about someone hacking my FaceBook page than I am of someone draining my bank account.

From my standpoint, the most important precautions one can take are those to protect his or her credit cards and financial accounts.

Fortunately, financial companies are adopting more sophisticated tools to protect their web portals and enable legitimate customers to conduct online transactions more safely and with more confidence.


One such tool that I use virtually every time I purchase something online is a Bank of America feature called ShopSafe. ShopSafe is a simple, elegant, and rock-solid feature that enables me to exert remarkable control over my online credit-card purchases.shopsafe2

In short, what ShopSafe allows me to do is generate a unique credit card number, with an amount of credit and an expiration date that I can specify.

For example, let’s say I want to buy a shirt online from Land’s End, and the cost is $50 including shipping.

I simply open another browser window, log on to BOA, and click the ShopSafe link, which gives me three options:

  • Create a New ShopSafe Number
  • Create a New ShopSafe Number for Recurring Payment
  • View All Active ShopSafe Numbers

shopsafe3Continuing the example, I click Create a New ShopSafe Number. This displays a screen that requires me to type in my security code to continue. The security code, also known as the CVC2 code, is the three- or four-digit number typically on the back of your credit card. It’s a way for BOA to confirm that you do, indeed, have the master credit card in your possession, and hopefully, by doing so, reduce fraud.

Once I type in the security code and click Continue, I’m in business. I get a screen that lets me specify the maximum spending amount and the number of months the credit card number will be valid. In my example, I want to buy a $50 shirt, and that includes shipping, so I enter a maximum spending amount of $50, and click Create Number.

shopsafe4ShopSafe displays a picture of the credit card right on my screen. It has the typical 16-digit number, expiration date, and security code. I can use this information to complete my purchase, and be comfortable that, if the Land’s End site is hacked, the perpetrators are not going to be able to steal credit card information of any value.

ShopSafe provides a lot of flexibility. I can maintain multiple temporary and unique credit card numbers with various limits and differing expiration dates.

For example, let’s say I know I’m likely to make multiple purchases from the same company over the course of a year. I can create a credit card for, let’s say, $500, and specify a 12-month expiration date. Then I can use that same number for that vendor multiple times. Again, if that vendor’s website is hacked, the crooks will get a low-value credit card number at best.

A ShopSafe credit card number can only be used for one vendor. You can use it multiple times until the balance has been depleted, but only with that vendor. This policy even further reduces the likelihood that the credit card number would be hacked.

shopsafe5ShopSafe provides a nice interface for viewing all the credit card numbers that are currently open. You can choose to reuse a credit card number for a particular vendor, if there’s still a balance left. Or you can cancel it at any time.

The beauty of ShopSafe is that the whole time you never expose your actual credit card number to any website, but maintain all the other benefits: one monthly payment, access to your full credit limit, and all the protections that your bank provides.

Does your bank provide ShopSafe?

To my knowledge, only BOA provides ShopSafe. Originally, I was an MNBA customer, and ShopSafe was available from that bank. However, Bank of America bought MBNA, and along with it all of its customers. Thankfully, BOA retained the ShopSafe feature on their website. Had they not, I might very well have moved on.

Reportedly, Citi Bank offers a feature called Virtual Account Numbers, which appears to offer essentially the same capabilities as ShopSafe, but I’ve not tried it, so can’t say for certain.

If your bank doesn’t offer ShopSafe or something similar, it is certainly reasonable to ask why not. As we’ve said in these pages before, speak with your wallet. It’s an amazingly authoritative way to effect change.

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