How to find and understand your credit card CVV number

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In a Nutshell

Your credit card CVV number can add an extra layer of security when shopping online. But first you have to know where to find it — and understand its limitations.

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Where do I find my credit card’s CVV?

It’s not too hard to locate your credit card CVV number.

For Mastercard®, Visa® and Discover® credit cards, the CVV number is a three-digit number on the back of the card. You’ll usually find it to the right of the box where your signature goes.

American Express® cards are slightly different. With these cards, the code is four digits and can be found on the front of the card, typically printed directly above the card number on the far-right side.

So just to recap: When you’re making a purchase online and you’re asked to input your CVV number, either look at the back of your card or the front, depending on the issuer. This helps to limit fraud, as you typically need to have your credit card in your physical possession to find the CVV number.

What is a CVV number?

CVV stands for “card verification value.” A CVV number — also known as a CSC, or “card security code” number — adds an extra layer of security to transactions in which the merchant can’t physically confirm you’re the actual cardholder. These are known as “card not present” transactions, which include virtually every purchase you make while shopping online.

Think about it: How can an online merchant such as eBay or possibly know that you’re who you say you are? It’s not like they can just ask to look at your driver’s license. Because it can be difficult for online merchants to verify the authorized cardholder is making the purchase, card-not-present transactions can be particularly appealing to those looking to commit credit card fraud.

The CVV number was developed as a means to protect against such fraud, and it has since become an industry standard to include one on the card. “The CVV code is a security feature that became widely adopted by all major card carriers in the U.S. by 2001,” explains Nathan Miller, founder of Rentec Direct, a software company that serves the property management industry. “The code helps online merchants verify your identity by confirming that you have the actual card in your hand.”

How much security does a CVV number offer?

The CVV number is an extra layer of security that may help limit or deter fraudulent purchases, even if a would-be thief knows your credit card number.

Ryan Speier, co-founder of online marketplace, has seen the security benefits of CVV numbers firsthand. “We process a lot of transactions and require the CVV with every payment,” he says. “This value is not stored with us nor with our processor, and in the case of a data breach, all of the stored credit card numbers can’t be used [for transactions that also require a CVV number].”

Speier notes that a professional hacker may be able to access your card info, but in theory, a credit card number without the corresponding CVV number should be useless if the merchant takes proper security precautions.

However, in recent years there have been sophisticated phishing attacks to obtain CVV numbers. Even if a CVV number isn’t stored with the merchant, professional scammers may be able to find a way to access the code.

How do merchants use and store CVV numbers?

While CVV numbers can help limit online fraud, there’s one tiny issue preventing them from being a security powerhouse: Not all merchants use them.

Most merchants require you to enter a CVV number along with your card number and its expiration date, but some may cut corners to create a faster shopping experience. Just know that you may be risking your own security by shopping with a merchant that doesn’t ask for your card’s CVV number if that merchant stores your credit card information.

Even if you do have to enter a CVV code, you may still assume some security risk when using your card online. As scammers get more sophisticated with phishing scams and malware, and as black market data crime increases, your CVV code and other sensitive personal data could still be compromised.

How can you protect yourself (and your CVV number)?

You’ll likely need to use your CVV number when shopping online, but you may also want to make sure the merchant’s site is properly secured. When shopping online, look at the URL and make sure there’s a little padlock icon followed by “https” at the front. It looks like this:

This means you’re connected through a secure http connection and the site is sending you encrypted information.

Even when you’re not shopping online, get in the habit of keeping your CVV number safe and secure. Don’t give it out unless you absolutely have to — and only if you know it’s safe. You may also consider checking your billing statements frequently for suspicious purchases and signing up for credit monitoring.

Bottom line

If you need to find your credit card CVV number, now you know where to look (and then some). Your three- or four-digit code should be easily accessible, so long as you have your credit card on you.

Ultimately, your CVV number may offer additional security when making online purchases. That’s definitely a good thing, but it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Our advice? Take an active role in keeping your card information safe, and don’t trust the merchant to do it for you.