The easiest way to protect my online payments and keep free trials free
Have you ever had to go through the steps to cancel and replace credit cards after a data breach? If not, maybe you, like me, cracked up by entering your debit card details on a sketchy website, or signed up for a free trial and forgot to cancel it before to be billed. I found myself wishing for a safer alternative, like a disposable card number. For situations like these, I’ve started using privacy, which provides just that.
Privacy is a free service that allows me to generate single-use virtual payment cards with spending limits to protect my banking information from data breaches or unscrupulous online retailers. I especially like to use privacy cards to sign up for free trials. It gives me peace of mind in case I forget to cancel and protects me from being fooled by a deceptive design that makes it difficult or impossible to do so.
Instead of trusting dozens of potentially vulnerable retailers with my card information, I only share my bank details with Privacy. The company publishes its security policies online, and they include all the basic precautions that Wirecutter’s privacy editor, Thorin Klosowski, likes to see from companies that handle financial data. While free services are often funded by collecting personal data and advertising revenue, Privacy makes money by collecting transaction fees from merchants. Since even major retailers and financial institutions can suffer a security breach, giving my real card number to as few places as possible minimizes the risk of it being included in a leak.
How to start using Privacy Cards
To get started, go to Privacy.com and create an account. Follow the instructions to connect your bank account or debit card. You cannot link it to another credit card. (Next, don’t forget to go to your account page and turn on two-factor authentication.) Privacy doesn’t actually store any of your bank or card information. Instead, it uses Plaid — a product that many banks and financial services rely on to securely connect accounts — to obtain a special type of security token that allows it to work with your funding source when you make a purchase with your virtual card. And you can quickly disconnect your privacy account from your bank or debit card if you need to.
Once your account is created, you can use the privacy website to generate a card for any purchase. No money is transferred upfront and your real card is not charged until you make a purchase. For each card, you can set a spending limit and choose whether this limit is monthly (for a recurring monthly subscription, such as a streaming service) or per year (for an annual subscription to our favorite budgeting app, perhaps). Setting spending limits on recurring subscriptions can be helpful in avoiding unexpected price increases, such as those we’ve seen recently on Amazon Prime and Netflix.
Per-transaction and total spending limits are useful if you intend to use the virtual card multiple times on the same site. I recently purchased refills for our recommended water filter pitcher this way. Any attempted transactions over the limit will automatically be rejected, so it’s a good layer of protection if you’re worried about someone getting your card information and going on a PlayStation 5 shopping spree.
But my favorite option is the single-use card, which automatically closes two minutes after the first transaction is completed. This is perfect if you plan to use the card only once and never want him to be able to access your funding source again. I recently generated a one-time use card with a $1 spending limit to sign up for a free trial of Masterclass, for which I would have been automatically charged a $180 annual membership fee if I had forgot to cancel in time.
When you’re done with your purchase, you can also choose to suspend the card and avoid further transactions until you manually reactivate it, or you can close the card forever and generate a new one next time. you shop at that retailer.
Generate a card in a password manager or browser extension
If you don’t want to open the privacy site every time you need a new virtual card, you can also integrate the tool into your web browser via Firefox and Chrome extensions which will generate cards for you on the payment. If you use our favorite password manager, 1Password, you can follow these instructions to integrate it with your privacy account. Now, when you’re in an online shopping cart, you can click the Create a Privacy Map drop-down option in the card number field, and 1Password will generate a virtual card with the same spending limit and frequency settings you set when creating a card on the privacy website. If you don’t use 1Password, although you should, Privacy’s browser extensions work the same way. And although I haven’t used them, Privacy also offers iOS and Android mobile shopping apps for anyone who finds themselves on their phone more than their computer.
This article was edited by Haley Perry and Mark Smirniotis.