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Should I Get a Credit Privacy Number?
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When you apply for a loan, mortgage or credit card, the lender will typically ask for your Social Security number to run a credit check. But in the age of identity theft and data breaches, it’s natural to be hesitant about giving out such sensitive information.
To protect their Social Security number — or distance themselves from an unflattering credit history — some people are lured into buying a Credit Privacy Number (CPN) online. A CPN is a nine-digit number initially created as a privacy measure for public figures, like politicians, celebrities and even people in witness protection. But today, fake CPNs are being sold online by scam artists who want to rob you and and expose you to identity theft.
Make no mistake: Using a CPN to knowingly conceal your credit troubles or lack of credit is illegal. And buying one online is an easy way to get ripped off.
CPN scams are not as common as they were two to three years ago, said Rod Griffin, director of consumer education and engagement for credit bureau Experian. Still, they’re out there, and it’s helpful to understand how they can hurt you. Here’s what you need to know to avoid getting scammed.
The dangers of CPNs
If escaping your credit woes with a new number and a clean slate sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. In some cases, if a CPN doesn’t already belong to someone with a credit profile, it’s possible it could be validated by the credit bureaus and allow you to create a new credit file and apply for new lines of credit. But using a CPN to hide your credit history is illegal, and you could face fines or prison time for fraud.
Griffin said that the illegality typically comes down to intent. “Any time you use a false identifier to escape accurate information, it’s a financial fraud,” he said. “That’s what people often thought they were able to do: ‘I will buy this number and use it to replace my Social Security number so I can get away from that bad debt,’ and it didn’t work.”
To complicate matters, the people selling you CPNs are almost always doing so illegally. These numbers are usually obtained by scammers in one of two ways:
- Identity theft: They steal Social Security numbers, often from children, the elderly or people who are incarcerated, especially if they have no credit history or good credit history. These populations are targeted because they are less likely to notice the identity theft. For example, a man in Louisiana was arrested in 2015 for selling CPNs for $350 a piece as replacement Social Security numbers for people who had credit problems. It turns out he was using stolen Social Security numbers, mostly belonging to kids.
- Synthetic identity fraud: Rather than stealing existing Social Security numbers from individual, criminals will use an algorithm to determine fake Social Security numbers that haven’t been issued yet. They then cross-check them on an illegal online validation tool that lets them see if the numbers would work. However, Griffin said Experian’s system can detect fake Social Security numbers.
If someone offers you a CPN, our best advice is to run in the other direction. Here are some additional red flags that suggest you’re dealing with an illegal scheme:
- You are promised a “new credit identity.”
- You are promised a specific credit score (in these cases, you’re often dealing with a stolen Social Security number).
- You’re required to change your address, phone number or email address (you may be told it’s for security, but it’s really to help create a new identity, i.e. fraud).
- They insist you pay up front before they do any work for you. Griffin said the Credit Repair Organizations Act makes it illegal for a credit repair firm to take any money from you until its promises and work are fulfilled.
- You’re told to not contact the credit bureaus directly.
The biggest red flag, Griffin said, is if you’re promised a quick credit fix. Building or repairing credit takes time, he explained. “If they say, ‘We can fix your credit report overnight,’ it’s not true.”
Reporting a CPN scam
If you believe someone is trying to sell you a CPN, you can report the scam. Since many states have laws to regulate credit repair businesses, you can contact your state’s attorney general office or local consumer affairs department.
You can also report the scammer to the Federal Trade Commission by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP or filing a complaint online. The FTC can’t resolve your actual dispute, but it can investigate and take legal action against the company if it appears to be in violation of the law.
Tips for legitimate credit repair
For example, you can obtain free copies of your credit report and dispute anything that’s inaccurate. You can regularly pay your bills on time and work on getting debt under control. You can ask your landlord to start reporting your on-time rent payments to the credit bureaus. Griffin also noted that his bureau is adding a new service, Experian Boost, that gives consumers the option of having utility and cellphone providers report payments to the credit bureau, which can help improve credit scores over time.
If going it alone seems too difficult, Griffin recommended using a nonprofit credit counseling service, which is often either free or affordable. “They can help you manage your credit and identify ways you can restore your credit history without taking action like a settlement,” he said. Such a service may be able to work directly with your lenders to help make your situation more manageable. It takes time and a little dedication to improve your credit, but it’s worth it to do it the right — and legal — way.