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When you make an online or phone purchase, you sometimes have to enter or read off your credit card's CVV number (short for card verification value, also known as the CVV2, card security code or CSC). This three- or four-digit code is a key credit card security feature. Here's how to find it and what it's used for.
Where to find your credit card’s CVV
Visa, MasterCard and Discover cards have a three-digit CVV printed on the back of the card, usually next to the signature panel. Sometimes, you’ll also see the last four digits of your card’s account number listed along with the three-digit CVV; those four numbers appear before your CVV and don’t count as your CVV, so don't enter them when prompted online for your CVV.
American Express cards have a four-digit CVV located on the front of the card, just above and to the right of your account number.
For all four card networks, the CVV is printed on the card, rather than embossed in raised lettering.
The purpose of CVV numbers
The value of CVV numbers lies in how your credit card information is stored by merchants.
Merchants that handle credit card transactions often store your card data even after the purchase is processed, so that you don't have to type it in again every time you buy something from the site. (This is all perfectly legal.) However, if your card information is stored, it has the potential to be stolen in one of the data breaches that have become common.
The CVV adds another layer of protection. Security standards in the payment industry prohibit merchants from storing CVV numbers. That way, even if a database is compromised, the hackers still won’t have the CVV and won’t be able to use the stolen card numbers anywhere that requires the three- or four-digit code.
This leads to the question of why sites like Amazon can process payments on a stored credit card without you re-entering your CVV every time. These types of recurring-payment sites tend to ask for your CVV when you first enter the card number and use it to verify the card. From then on, they treat the card as valid.
So my card’s completely safe, right?
Unfortunately, not always. As you’ve probably noticed, not all merchants require you to enter a CVV. A crook may be able to get your card account number and use it on those sites, even if without the CVV.
Plus, there’s always phishing. A scammer may ask you for your credit number as well as your CVV, or might obtain your credit card account number and use that information to lure you into giving your CVV. Be sure to keep your personal data and account numbers safe from phishers, and learn to recognize the most common scams.