What is a Reference Number?

Article Summary:

A reference number is a unique set of numbers and/or letters assigned to a transaction. Reference numbers are used by financial institutions for all types of services, such as credit or debit transactions and wire transfers. This number may also be referred to as a confirmation number — such as for travel arrangements like flight or hotel reservations — or a transaction ID in banking terms. If you are applying for a loan, you may see a reference number on your loan application form.

Financial institutions of all kinds have millions of transactions they need to process daily. Having a unique reference number for each financial transaction helps banks and credit unions identify each one in their records or electronic databases. It’s a useful system when trying to track the status of a transaction or dispute its validity.

For example, if you call a customer service representative to dispute a transaction on your credit or debit card, it’s much easier for them to punch in a transaction’s reference number than to look it up by date, name of the vendor, or amount (although that can be done too). Let’s take a look at that and other reasons why having individual reference numbers is so valuable and convenient.

What exactly is a reference number?

A reference number is a random computer-generated series of numbers and/or letters assigned to a transaction (usually a debit or credit card transaction). This includes goods and services you purchase as well as bill payments and other types of transactions.

Operational transaction details are recorded under the number, such as date of purchase, merchant, and amount of the sale. It even tracks the card terminal that was used to make the transaction.

This wealth of detail can be found in the card company’s database, making it much easier for customer service inquiries of all kinds to be addressed. It also helps to smooth the resolution process if your card is stolen and used for fraudulent purposes.

Reference numbers for other transactions

Other financial transactions will also be assigned a reference number, such as bank or credit union transfers, withdrawals, deposits, money orders, and flight and hotel reservations. A reference number will likely even be assigned to your application submission form when applying for a loan or credit card.

Reference numbers are pretty ubiquitous these days, which is handy for both consumers and merchants.

What is a bank identification number (BIN)?

The term bank identification number (BIN) refers to the first four to six digits of payment cards, such as credit or debit cards, store cards, or gift cards. Those numbers signify the financial institutions that issued the card. The first number describes the major industry identifier (such as Visa, Mastercard, etc.), and the following digits describe the bank or other financial institution that issued the card.

Sometimes known as the IIN or issuer identification number, these codes make it easier to trace the card, and any transactions made with it, back to the issuing card companies. Because of the details associated with the BIN, it’s useful in identifying different types of fraud such as stolen cards or identity theft and can help to verify when fraudulent charges are made.

Where to find different types of reference numbers

Usually, you can find your transaction reference number on your monthly billing statements, either online or on printed statements mailed to your home.

If you’re not sure, look for a long number — sometimes up to 20-something characters that may include letters and numbers. However, some reference numbers, such as flight confirmation numbers, may be much shorter.

  • Flight. Sometimes you may receive your reference number, or confirmation number, through email or printed on the receipt or physical document. For example, if you make a flight reservation, they will email you the receipt with the confirmation number, but it also appears on the printed plane ticket.
  • Loan or credit card. If you apply for a loan or credit card, your reference number will likely be on the application itself. That way if you call to check on the status of your application, customer service reps can quickly pull up your information and see where you are in the process.
  • Money orders or wire transfers. Similarly, reference numbers for things such as money orders or wire transfers are typically on your receipt. You can use this number to track whether the transfer went through or the check was cashed, for example.

In other cases, you may receive a reference number verbally, such as over the phone. While you won’t necessarily have to provide that number, it’s always a good idea to make a note of it and keep it somewhere safe just in case.

Track a banking transfer

With online and mobile apps such as PayPal, Venmo, or your own bank’s transfer system, it’s always a smart idea to keep track of if and when the money reaches its destination.

Sometimes the money will move immediately, but other times it can take a few days to process. Reference or transaction numbers can help you to keep track of that information in case something goes awry.

What if I can’t find my reference number?

If you have an issue with some type of transaction but can’t locate your reference number, don’t worry.

Customer service employees will be able to locate the transaction in question if you provide them with some information. Details such as the date and amount of the purchase and the name of the merchant or seller should be enough for the card companies to find the correct transaction.

How to protect your accounts

While banks and other financial institutions do much to protect your account information from fraud, be sure to do your own due diligence too. This means carefully going over your credit card and transaction statements each month, balancing your checkbook, and setting up multi-factor authentication processes on all of your accounts.

It’s also a great idea to regularly check your credit report to make sure no new accounts have been opened in your name. You might want to invest a few dollars in a fraud protection system that will notify you of any suspicious activity on your accounts or credit report.

Pro Tip

Multi-factor authentication means having multiple ways to prove who you say you are. Methods can include secret questions or having a code emailed or texted to you, for instance.

How does a payment reference number deter fraud?

As hackers and other criminals get more creative in their efforts to steal people’s credit card information, so too do financial institutions get more innovative in counteracting different types of fraud. Reference numbers are one of those methods that make tracking payment information much more streamlined.

Because a reference number can track down purchases in such detail, it’s possible to find out not only where a transaction occurred, but even the terminal where the transaction was executed. This way you can know immediately if a purchase was legitimate. The sooner you know a charge was fraudulent, the quicker you can void that payment.

Key Takeaways

  • Reference numbers are a combination of random numbers and/or letters assigned to most debit or credit card transactions and other types of financial transactions.
  • It’s easier for customer service reps to track transaction queries when you can provide them with a reference number.
  • Transaction metadata is stored under the reference number so a customer service representative can quickly see all the details of your transaction.
  • Reference transaction numbers can only go so far to help you track your payment and billing history. It’s critical to keep on top of your account activity as well.
View Article Sources
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  2. Identity Theft — USA.gov
  3. Can a Refund Be Made to a Canceled Debit Card? — SuperMoney
  4. How To Find My Debit Card Number Online — SuperMoney
  5. Where Is The Security Code On A Debit Card — SuperMoney
  6. Can You Track a Debit Card? — SuperMoney
  7. How to Open a Checking Account — SuperMoney
  8. Best Checking Accounts | May 2022 — SuperMoney