A credit privacy number, or CPN, is supposedly a nine-digit identifying number that you can use instead of your Social Security number, or SSN, to protect your privacy on credit documents. Sometimes CPNs are referred to as secondary credit numbers, or SCN numbers. Others may call them credit profile numbers.
Whatever they’re called, officials say CPNs are bad news. First, they don’t actually exist, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Second, if you use any number in place of your Social Security number on a credit application, you are committing a federal crime.
If that’s not enough to stop you in your tracks, keep reading for more details on what CPNs are supposed to do, why they’re actually a scam, and how else you can maintain privacy and protect yourself from identity theft.
What is a CPN supposed to do for me?
There are a couple of reasons that the idea of a CPN might appeal to the average (and not-so-average) Joe:
- Cut risk of identity theft: When an identity thief gets their hands on your SSN, they can do a lot of damage. The less you use your SSN, the less chance someone will be able to find it and use it fraudulently to open accounts in your name, file a fraudulent tax return as you, or steal medical or employment benefits. A CPN would seem like a good solution to this problem.
- Maintain privacy: Our Social Security numbers can link us to a lot of things — where we live, what we buy, even recent medical procedures. Using a CPN, in theory, would allow someone to cover their tracks a bit better. Some sources even claim celebrities and elected officials use CPNs for this reason.
Will a CPN give me a clean slate if I have bad credit?
Some less-than-reputable companies also claim that if you have a very spotty credit history, you can use a CPN to apply for and receive new credit. Unfortunately, you can’t leave behind your old, tarnished credit history and establish a shiny new one by simply using a new number in place of your SSN. You could even be charged with fraud. Here’s why:
- Your SSN isn’t your only identifying information: Your creditors will use your name, address history, and other basics to connect you with old accounts — not simply your SSN. So simply producing a new number doesn’t make all your old debts disappear in a snap.
- Your creditor can simply reject your application: It’s your right to withhold your SSN by simply leaving the box blank when you apply for credit. However, doing so might very likely mean your creditor exercises their right to trash your application without a second thought.
- Using another number when your creditor asks for your SSN is a crime: If you put a so-called CPN on an application where an SSN should be, you’ve technically committed fraud not just once, but twice. That’s because both misrepresenting your SSN and lying on a credit or loan application are federal crimes, according to the FTC.
How do I protect myself from CPN scams?
Maybe you’ve come across a company that promises you the chance to start again by using a CPN number to apply for new credit, untangling yourself from a checkered credit history in the process. As I discussed above, that’s a very unlikely scenario. In fact, you should be very wary of any company that claims to produce CPNs.
Unfortunately, here’s what typically happens: The company has purchased an actual, albeit “dormant,” SSN to pass off as a CPN number. It may have been the SSN of someone who died, or perhaps it belongs to a child. Either way, its owner hasn’t used it recently to apply for credit, so it may not immediately trigger red flags with the creditor.
Here are several signs that a company is trying to scam you with a CPN:
- The company tells you it’s perfectly legal to apply for credit using a CPN in place of your SSN. It’s not — it’s actually fraud. You also risk being charged in an identity theft case if investigators determine the number was a stolen SSN.
- The company instructs you to lie about other information that may connect you to your old credit history. A creditor uses more than your SSN to check your account history.
- The company tells you to use an EIN, or Employee Identification Number, to apply for credit. Businesses use EINs for specific financial reporting purposes, but they are not for personal credit applications.
- The company demands that you pay for a CPN or any services before doing any work for you. It’s common (and illegal) for scammers to demand upfront payment before providing services.
- The company promises that you’ll no longer be associated with your old credit accounts. As I mentioned above, creditors use more than your SSN to identify you and your past accounts.
- The company promises that you’ll be able to obtain new credit with a CPN. No one can guarantee whether a creditor will accept or deny an application on any basis.
Is there any such thing as a legitimate CPN number?
Some sources claim that you can legally obtain a CPN by consulting an attorney. Your attorney supposedly can then file an application for a CPN from the Social Security Administration on your behalf. All you have to do is have a compelling reason and fill out some paperwork.
However, according to Jay Mayfield, senior public affairs specialist with the FTC, CPNs simply aren’t legitimate. But because there’s so much misinformation out there, “the area is ripe for scammers,” he said.
If CPNs are bogus, how else can I protect myself from identity theft?
If the idea of a CPN appeals to you simply because you want to maintain your privacy and reduce your risk of identity theft, you can employ several measures to protect yourself without falling for a CPN scam:
- Shred sensitive documents when they’re no longer needed: One of the easiest ways an identity thief can swipe your personal information is by simply lifting it out of your trash.
- Use public Wi-Fi sparingly: It’s relatively easy for hackers to steal personal data that’s sent or received over a public Wi-Fi connection. If possible, wait until you’re home or on an otherwise trusted connection to do your banking and shopping.
- Choose your passwords wisely: Experts recommend using passwords with several letters, numbers, and characters — not simple words that can be found in the dictionary. You should also refrain from using the same password across the Web.
- Be skeptical of fishy phone calls, emails, texts, or other unsolicited requests for personal information. Remember that scammers can pose as representatives of institutions that you may trust, or even as friends and family.
- Consider an identity-theft protection service: While it’s certainly a good idea to monitor any bank or credit accounts on your own, you can go a step further and get an identity-theft protection service, also called a credit-monitoring service, for increased peace of mind. These services can alert you to a range of things, including when new credit accounts or public records are created with your information. They also provide identity-theft insurance to protect you from expenses you may incur when rectifying the situation.
It is also possible to change your Social Security number with the Social Security Administration, but the requirements to do so are extremely strict, and run-of-the-mill fears over identity theft would not meet the criteria. In fact, many victims of identity theft still won’t be permitted to change their numbers unless they are suffering ongoing harm because of continued misuse of their original number. Even then, “using a new number will not guarantee you a fresh start,” cautions the SSA.
Steer clear of jail by forgoing bogus CPNs
Unfortunately, shedding a bad credit history isn’t as easy as using a new number instead of your Social Security number on credit applications. In fact, no matter what a company may say, using a so-called CPN instead of your SSN on such documents is a crime. For the same reason, it’s also a crime to use any number in place of your SSN purely because of privacy concerns.
It is your right to withhold your SSN on credit applications. Of course, it is also the creditor’s right to reject your application because of this. But when Uncle Sam is involved — think filing your taxes, applying for unemployment, buying a gun, or just registering a vehicle — you’ll be required to use your SSN.
Bottom line? If someone tries to tell you a CPN number (or an SCN number) is a good idea for any reason, don’t just walk away. Run.