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Published August 12, 2022

Credit Card Numbers: What They Mean, How They Protect You

Knowing what credit card numbers mean can help protect you against fraud when shopping online, in-store or on your mobile.

Have you ever wondered why your credit card number is so long? It’s not by accident (or because there are so many credit cards in circulation).

Each number or set of numbers on Canadian credit cards have an important role to play in keeping transactions organized and secure.

What is a credit card number?

Your credit card number is the longest number you will find on your credit card. Most credit card numbers are 16 digits long, written out in four sets of four digits.

Example: 1234 5678 9123 4567

American Express credit card numbers are a bit different and only have 15 digits. They are written out as one set of four numbers, one set of six numbers and one set of five numbers.

American Express example: 1234 567891 23456

The number on your credit card isn’t just your account number. The individual numbers also represent different characteristics of your credit card.

For example, the first number sometimes tells you what industry the credit card belongs to. If it’s a three then it’s likely a travel or entertainment credit card.

The first digit in a credit card number can also be a clue about which financial institution issued it.

  • If a card starts with 3 it’s likely an American Express (although some other cards use three as the first digit).
  • If a card starts with 4 then it’s a Visa credit card.
  • If a card starts with 5 then it’s a Mastercard credit card.
  • If a card starts with 6, then it’s a Discover card.

Credit cards that start with other numbers may be used by other Canadian businesses, such as gas stations or retailer-specific credit cards.

Mastercard and Visa credit card numbers

When it comes to Visa and Mastercard, the first six digits of your credit card number are the bank identification number, or BIN. This shows what financial institution issued the card. Banks can have more than one BIN.

For Visa and Mastercard, the remaining digits of your credit card number, except for the last one, are the a.

American Express credit card numbers

American Express credit cards are a bit different. The second number is either a four or a seven (because they share the first digit, three, with other credit cards).

As for the next two digits, it’s impossible to be sure because American Express does not publish the meaning behind their numbers but it’s thought that the third and fourth digits of an American Express card identify the type of card (charge vs credit card) and the currency (i.e., Canadian dollars).

For American Express, digits five to 11 are your account number and then digits 12 to 14 represent the card number within the account.

The last digit of your credit card number

The final digit for all three credit card networks is the validator, which helps protect against fraud and ensures the merchant is, in fact, getting a valid credit card number.

Where to find your credit card number

Your credit card number is the longest number on your card, which makes it stand out and easy to find. For most credit cards, it’s on the front of the card, however, some metal credit cards and American Express cards might have it on the back. You can also find this number when you access your account online  or on any credit card statements.

How credit card numbers are stolen

Credit card fraud is, unfortunately, a big problem. There are a number of ways in which someone can steal your credit card number.

These days, online scams are the most common and include things like phishing emails, which are fraudulent emails designed to look authentic but really just aim to steal your credit card information.

Using your credit card while logged into public Wi-Fi networks can also be a way hackers get your credit card info. Of course there is also the possibility of data breaches and the old-fashioned method of people looking through your trash for any paperwork with your account information.

Finally, ATM skimming, which is when someone has a device that records the information on your credit card when you use a machine, is still an issue.

Most credit cards do offer fraud protection, but it is up to you to protect your credit card information. If you reveal your PIN or card security code then you can be held responsible.

The good news is that scammers can’t do much with just your credit card number, they will need the security code on the back and/or your PIN as well. So be mindful of using your card in public places where people can observe you entering your PIN and be cautious of scam emails and shopping online at unknown sites.

Other important credit card numbers to know

There are a few more numbers on your credit card to be aware of, especially if shopping online or making a purchase over the phone.

The expiration date is four digits and shows what month and year the credit card expires. The credit card can be used up until the last day of the month listed in the expiration date. After this, the card will be declined.

The CVV (card verification value) number is the security code usually located on the back of your card. This will be three or four digits, depending on the type of credit card you have (Visa and Mastercard have three digits, Amex has four digits). The CVV is a number that you want to protect as much as possible.

Finally, there are the credit card issuer’s contact numbers. These are the phone numbers to get in touch with your credit card provider should you need any assistance with your credit card. There are usually two numbers listed, a toll-free number if you are located within Canada and a number that you can call collect if you are travelling abroad.

About the Author

Hannah Logan

Hannah Logan is a writer and blogger who specializes in personal finance and travel. You can follow her personal travel blog EatSleepBreatheTravel.com or find her on Instagram @hannahlogan21.

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