Credit card issuers have introduced free features and tools to deal with rampant identity theft and, specifically, credit card fraud. They range from an ability to lock your card from purchases to monitoring your identity on the dark web.
Most protections that card issuers use are behind-the-scenes monitoring systems in their fraud departments that try to detect fraud once it happens. And fraud prevention is built into their business, such as issuing cards with security chips and verification codes, for example.
But you don’t have control over that. Those features and services happen automatically. Here are tools some issuers offer that you can control.
» MORE: How to prevent credit card fraud
Nerd tip: To learn which fraud protections your card offers, see your issuer’s website or search online, using the name of your issuer and a term like “credit card fraud protection.”
Credit card tools that can help prevent fraud
Card lock or card freeze lets you essentially "turn off" your credit card to foil would-be thieves, which is particularly helpful if you lose your card, for example.
Typically, you start or stop a lock using your card issuer’s mobile app, or you can log in to your online account to activate an on-off switch. Many debit card accounts also feature a lock.
While Discover pioneered the idea of giving cardholders this control with its "Freeze it" feature, many other card issuers now offer it in some fashion, including American Express, Bank of America, Barclays, Capital One, Chase, Citi and Wells Fargo.
So chances are, you might have card lock and not even know it.
Nerd tip: Credit locks and credit freezes offered by credit bureaus are entirely different. They are broader, restricting access to your credit files. That makes it harder for a thief to open new credit accounts in your name. They don't restrict spending on your credit card.
Dark web monitoring
Discover was also early to the game with a service that alerts cardholders when their Social Security number or other identifying information appears on risky websites, also called the dark web. This online place, inaccessible by traditional search engines, is where stolen personal information can be sold anonymously.
Now, a number of issuers offer dark web monitoring, and it’s worth enrolling in if your card offers it.
If you receive an alert, it means you should pay attention to signs of identity theft and possibly put a freeze on your credit.
One example: Capital One offers dark web monitoring through its CreditWise program, which is open to everyone, even noncardholders.
Virtual credit card numbers
Some major credit card issuers, including Capital One and Citi, offer this feature. These free card numbers are tied to your credit card account but don’t use the same number that’s on your credit card. The idea is that if the virtual number is stolen, your real card number won’t be compromised.
It’s like a mask for your credit card number and is used primarily for online shopping. Virtual card numbers come complete with their own expiration dates and security verification codes.
Typically, you request a virtual number for a limited time, even a single transaction or for a particular merchant. Capital One's version is called Eno, an add-on for your web browser. It not only offers virtual numbers for a particular shopping website, but it also alerts you to suspicious charges on your account, among other features.
Even if your card issuer doesn't offer virtual numbers, your card's payment network (Visa, Mastercard, Discover or American Express) will for select merchants. Those four companies joined together to form an online checkout service called "Click to Pay," which is a virtual payment system similar to a PayPal checkout button.
Contactless cards and digital wallets
Contactless payment refers to tapping your credit card on a payment terminal to pay or holding a smartphone or smartwatch near the terminal to pay using a system such as Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay.
Contactless methods work via a technology called NFC, or near field communication. They make paying at stores safer because they use a "tokenization" method to change payment information with every transaction — kind of like a virtual credit card number. The merchant never collects actual credit card numbers.
Adding a layer of security, a smartphone is usually password-protected, making the phone unusable without unlocking, usually by personal identification number or biometric identification, such as a fingerprint or face scan.
Contactless credit cards have little antennas inside. They are identified by a logo that looks like a sideways Wi-Fi symbol of radiating waves. Retail payment terminals that accept contactless payments have the same symbol. If your current card doesn’t have contactless ability, some issuers allow you to request a new card that does. These cards don’t require a smartphone.
For online transactions, you can use a number of digital wallets, including the "Click to Pay" service. That way, you never enter your credit card number into a merchant's website checkout.
While a card issuer or payment network can make your card compatible with these types of technologies, it’s up to you to use contactless methods as a fraud-prevention measure.
Credit monitoring services claim to protect you from identity theft, but they mostly alert you after it happens. Overall, they don’t do much more than you could do yourself. But if it’s free with your credit card, you might as well use it.
Examples of issuers that offer it: Discover, as well as Chase (Credit Journey) and Capital One (CreditWise), which is available to everyone, not just Capital One customers.
American Express offers a paid service called CreditSecure. NerdWallet recommends paying for identity-theft monitoring in only limited circumstances.
There’s also simple account monitoring. Check your online account regularly for unusual activity. Using a card issuer’s mobile app might make that easier.
Many issuers allow you to add real-time alerts to your account, including Capital One, Chase, Bank of America, Citi and Wells Fargo.
Instant purchase notifications can alert you to all charges or those over a certain dollar amount that you set. Some fraud alerts will text your mobile phone when there’s suspicious activity to ask whether the charge was legitimate. Typically, you must opt in to such services.
Keep your mobile phone number and e-mail address up to date so you get the notifications. If you’re using the issuer’s mobile app, enable push alerts to get instant notifications.
Who’s really helped by fraud protection?
When it comes to someone using your credit card to fraudulently make purchases, you’re protected by federal law, but also by promises from issuers and card networks not to hold you financially liable for illegitimate charges, a policy called zero liability. So to some extent, these tools protect the issuers or merchants more than you, because you would rarely absorb the cost.
But it could save you the hassle of dealing with fraud. If one of these features prevents your credit card number from being used fraudulently or lets you catch it earlier, you might not have to change the billing information for your subscriptions charged to the card, for example.
In short, it could make cleaning up the mess easier.
And while fancy technology tools are nice to have, one effective action to stem credit card fraud is decidedly low-tech: Flip over your card and dial the phone number to report it as soon as you notice it.
Were you a victim of credit card fraud? Here are resources: