If you’re worried about identity theft or have recently had your Social Security number compromised, you may be wondering how you can protect yourself from fraud. Perhaps you’ve heard a credit privacy number, or CPN, is a way to do that. But here’s the thing about CPNs: Many experts recommend against using them, some going as far as to say they’re not legal.
What Is a CPN?
CPNs — also referred to as credit profile numbers, credit protection numbers, CPN numbers or secondary credit numbers (SCNs) — are marketed as nine-digit identification numbers that can supposedly be used instead of a Social Security number in some instances.
Some people selling CPN numbers even say consumers with bad credit can use these numbers in lieu of their Social Security numbers in order to get credit cards, loans and other financial tools that they would not otherwise qualify for.
“I would not use a CPN especially if you have questionable credit,” said John C. Heath, a credit expert and consumer attorney for Lexington Law. “It may be seen as an attempt to deceive a creditor about your creditworthiness (even if that is not your intention). The major credit bureaus do not generally accept CPNs as valid identifiers. It is best to stay away from using these.”
CPN sellers also often tell consumers they can apply for and receive credit from lenders and that their credit transactions will be reported to the three major credit reporting agencies — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.
That’s not really how it works.
“Experian doesn’t just match to a Social Security number. We match to all of the identification information provided to us to ensure we are providing a complete and accurate report to the correct individual,” said Rod Griffin, Experian’s director of public education. “A ‘credit repair number,’ or ‘credit privacy number’ would not be recognized as a valid Social Security number for the purposes of requesting a credit report.”
Equifax warns consumers about CPN numbers in a blog post tellingly named “Credit Repair Scams,” and a representative of the credit bureau sent Credit.com a statement regarding CPNs.
“Equifax asks for Social Security numbers and not alternatives,” said Nancy Bistritz, director of public relations and communications for the credit reporting agency.
TransUnion sent us a similar statement.
“TransUnion uses Social Security Numbers to identify consumer data for credit reports,” said David Blumberg, public relations director for TransUnion. “This approach is the standard for our industry because it supports the most accurate matching.”
Are Credit Privacy Numbers Legal?
Heath, the consumer attorney, didn’t go so far as to say CPN numbers are illegal: “I would say that they are at the very least suspect and should not be used.”
But others have. A Social Security Administration official testified to Congress as such:
“Websites offering CPNs advertise a new credit file with the use of a CPN, at costs ranging from about $40 to as much as $3,500. Despite what many of these credit repair websites imply, consumers should know that CPNs are not legal,” said Robert Feldt, special agent-in-charge of the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General’s Dallas Field Division, in a field hearing on Social Security numbers and child identity theft.
The Problem With CPN Numbers
Beware companies that will sell you a credit privacy number on the promises of a fresh start with easy access to credit and an escape from bad debts. Feldt noted that several “unscrupulous agencies and organizations” do this.
The Federal Trade Commission also has weighed in on the subject, in a post to its website titled “Credit Repair Scams.” It warns consumers to beware companies promising a “new credit identity” that can help you hide a bad credit history or bankruptcy in exchange for a fee: “If you pay them, these companies will provide you with a nine-digit number that looks like a Social Security number. They may call it a CPN — a credit profile number or a credit privacy number.”
Often, scammers purporting to sell CPN numbers are selling stolen Social Security numbers instead, the FTC warned. Scammers often use Social Security numbers stolen from children for this purpose. You could actually unwittingly be committing identity theft if you apply for credit using a stolen Social Security number, but that’s not the only legal concern with CPNs.
“Using false or fabricated identification information in an attempt to escape a negative credit history is fraud and could have legal implications,” said Griffin, of Experian.
If you know your Social Security number has been compromised or are worried about identity theft, it’s a good idea to monitor your credit regularly. You can get your credit reports for free once a year under federal law. You can also get two credit scores for free on Credit.com You’ll also receive a customized report explaining your credit score and the areas of your credit that could use some improving.
- Michael Schreiber contributed to this article.