Tokens are used in online and mobile payment systems too, such as Apple Pay, Android Pay, Visa Checkout and Masterpass from Mastercard. PayPal also allows users to pay without directly providing their card or bank account information to merchants.
Still, virtual card startups see opportunity in e-commerce because not all websites and mobile apps accept such payment systems, while nearly all still accept cards.
"A lot of people are still competing for the button at checkout," said Andrew Dietrich, Final's chief operating officer, referring to payment options such as PayPal that appear on merchants' checkout screens. "But there's no standard of acceptance. What's still accepted universally are these 16-digit numbers. It works everywhere."
These companies say they'll help protect your payment information online.
Final, a credit card company, offers account holders a physical card and the ability to create merchant-locked or single-use virtual cards online or through a mobile app. The card is available to applicants with good to excellent credit.
Privacy is a free service that works with most checking accounts. Unlike with Final, users need not apply or undergo a credit check. Once users link checking accounts to the service, they can create virtual card numbers through mobile apps or browser extensions.
Token is a free service that works with any bank account, debit card or credit card. Like with Privacy, there's no credit check. Users can create virtual cards through Token's mobile app.
The idea of virtual cards is not new, as big banks and credit card companies have offered them for years, though the offerings have been little used or not well-known.
Discover used to offer virtual card numbers but stopped the practice in 2014. Bank of America's Shop Safe virtual card feature has been around for a decade, but the bank acknowledges that the tool is used by only a small number of customers. It works only through the bank's website and is not built into its mobile app.
The venture-backed startups generate revenue by taking a piece of the payment processing fees merchants pay to accept credit and debit cards. Final, unlike the other companies, issues a credit card through a South Dakota bank, so it also can make money on interest.