All Swatisha Keith wanted was a better life with better credit to help buy things she needed for her family.
The way to do that, Swatisha thought at the time, was only a computer click away – opening a trove of online sales pitches for CPNs, most commonly known as credit “profile” or “privacy” numbers, that, some websites promised, would increase her buying power.
Some ads suggest a CPN is a magic solution, a way to boost your credit score, so you can get that new credit card, a new car or a new house.
“You can use your CPN to build a brand new life,” said one ad on YouTube.
Other ads online make it sound like everyone is using CPN’s as a way to protect the privacy of their Social Security number.
In one YouTube video, a scholarly looking man smiling at the camera said: “CPNs are commonly used by celebrities, members of Congress and witnesses protected by the federal government.”
Swatisha connected with a CPN seller she found in an ad on Craiglist.
“I heard everybody was doing it … so I was like, ‘OK, we’ll do this,’ she said in an interview with NBC 5 Investigates.
She paid $1,500 for a nine-digit CPN, the same number of digits as in a Social Security number.
Swatisha said the seller told her she could use a CPN instead of her SSN to apply for credit, and that it would give her a new credit history and a chance to wipe her old history clean, she expected the reward to be a “brand-new beginning.”
At first, it seemed to work. She used her CPN to get a new credit card and a loan for a new car.
“Within two months of me having it, I saw my credit score go up. It was in the 700s. So I was like, 'This is perfect,'” Swatisha said.
But the dream ended when federal agents showed up at her work.
“I got taken downtown to the federal building where I was booked and held,” she said.
The mother of three was facing up to 30 years in federal prison.
“I was terrified because I didn’t think anything like that would ever happen to me because … I’ve never been in trouble with the law,” Swatisha said.
Matt Pannell, former special agent for the Social Security Administration, is well aware of cases like the one Swatisha got caught up in.
“They hear an idea that is seemingly too good to be true, and they choose to believe it,” Pannell said in an interview with NBC 5 Investigates.
Pannell, who as a federal agent investigated CPN cases in Texas and Oklahoma, said a person applying for credit cannot use a CPN when asked, instead, to provide their Social Security number on a credit application.
To do so “is a false representation on a loan application. And that’s against the law in this country,” he said.
Yet such a crime is on the rise, especially in using a CPN to get a car loan, said Sgt. Darren Schlosser, with the fraud unit of the Houston Police Department.
Schlosser said some of the people he’s arrested seemed completely unaware they had committed a crime because they had read something that made them think it was OK to use a CPN.
“I’m extremely concerned that a normally law-abiding citizen would obtain a CPN because they’re desperate for a credit line they need,” the sergeant said.
Authorities told NBC 5 Investigates that many of the CPNs they see are really Social Security numbers belonging to children with no credit history.
Or, they said, CPN sellers may use certain websites to identify numbers that have not been issued yet as Social Security numbers.
Since banks and credit card companies sometimes run quick computer checks, they may not notice the number a person used on an application is not, in fact, the Social Security number they have used in the past.
“Without a doubt, more and more people are going to be brought into this world because of the sales pitches,” said Schlosser.
NBC 5 Investigates wondered who’s selling CPNs online in Texas, and what they’re saying to customers.
Our search led us to a meeting room at a Holiday Inn.
“I’ve been dealing with CPNs since I was, I think, about 18 years old,” said a man, going by the name “Tre the Credit Coach.”
We first saw him on his YouTube channel, where he said, “In one month total … we have done over 500 CPNs. Man, that is a lot.”
“When the 'credit coach' advertised a seminar at a Houston hotel, we sent an NBC 5 Investigates team member, with a hidden camera, to listen as he described himself as a CPN pioneer.
“I got in the CPN game before it was introduced to the internet. You know, I like to say that I’m one of the founders,” he said.
But he warned the group that if they wanted a CPN they might be too late, because banks were catching on.
“They scan every social that comes through there, and they’re going to shut down every CPN,” he said.
His real name, NBC 5 Investigates discovered, is Tremaine Manley.
Manley declined to go on camera but said in a telephone interview that he had only sold “maybe 10 (CPNs} over the past two years” – a far cry from the more than 500 he claimed to have sold online in a single month.
In the telephone interview, he said he warned customers that, “it’s on you to tell the bank that you are using a CPN,” and that if they are using one to apply for credit, they’re doing it “at their own risk.”
Manley said the CPNs he sells are not Social Security numbers belonging to other people.
Shortly after the telephone interview, he posted a message on YouTube saying, “We are not offering CPN numbers.”
Manley followed that with a video, telling viewers: “Some of you spent almost two years trying to figure this CPN thing out when you could have used that same amount of time figuring out your credit report.”
CPN sellers only break the law if they knowingly sell a stolen Social Security number or sell a fabricated credit history attached to a number.
But authorities said many sellers offer only nine-digit numbers – nothing more – shifting possible risks to customers.
“They are just the ones marketing this to people who are unknowing or unsuspecting that they are actually violating some federal law,” said Pannell, the former federal agent.
It was a lesson learned for Swatisha Keith, who avoided prison after federal prosecutors agreed to drop the charges once she served an 18-month probation and paid restitution.
“I wouldn’t want to see anybody else going through what I had to go through,” she said.
Swatisha now warns other people to never use anything but their Social Security number on a credit application.
“If I was them, I wouldn’t dare try it because, trust me, it’s going to come to an end,” she said.
NBC 5 Investigates found numerous websites selling CPNs, including one for a company that said it was based in Dallas. After attempting to contact someone with the company, it took down many of their postings, and the owner did not return our phone calls.
Meanwhile, this summer, the federal government will give banks additional tools, making it easier to check the number someone uses on a credit application to make sure it’s their Social Security number.
Those additional tools, investigators said, may mean more people could find themselves in trouble if they don’t know the rules.
The information below can help you improve your credit score, recover from credit scams or simply see what your credit score is.
- Federal Trade Commission - The FTC enforces the Fair Credit Reporting Act, requiring the nationwide credit reporting companies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months.
- AnnualCreditReport.com - The central website used by the three companies to provide the free reports.
- Better Business Bureau - The BBB gives tips on how to repair your credit and get out of debt.
- Better Business Bureau - Tips on how to avoid credit repair and debt relief scams.
- Consumer Credit Counseling Service - CCCS is a nonprofit organization that will help you find financial solutions to your financial problems.
- Transformance USA - Transformance promotes home ownership by providing financial education and debt management.
- Credit Karma - Credit Karma helps you file your taxes, provides credit scores, alerts you to important changes in your financial history and gives insight into credit well being.
- Intuit Turbo - Intuit Turbo combines your tax and credit information together to draw an overall picture of your financial health.
- Intuit Mint - Intuit Mint brings together all of your financial accounts, bills and more so you clan manage your finances from one dashboard.
Dealers at the raw end of auto loan scams have got to be a first. Follow along as we delve into this swindle involving Social Security numbers, credit privacy numbers, and something called synthetic identities.
Credit applicants in on the swindle are changing the last four digits of a Social Security number. The numbers belong to a living person. This creates what is known as a “synthetic identity.” It has caused an increase in Credit Privacy Number sellers, mainly in Southern California.
Why do dealers need a “credit privacy number” anyway?
A credit privacy number or CPN is a nine-digit number consumers use instead of a Social Security number. It is also called a consumer profile number, credit protection number, or consumer privacy number. It’s used to protect their privacy on credit documents. They don’t want their Social Security number to get lifted from whoever gets their eyes on it.
CPNs are also being used as a way to fake a credit repair according to the FTC and also the Office of the Inspector General. “The whole industry is set up to fool consumers to think these CPNs are legal,” said Frank McKenna to Automotive News.He’s the chief fraud specialist for PointPredictive. “All they are are stolen Social Security numbers.”
In this auto loan scam, some CPN numbers belong to children
Some CPN numbers are dormant Social Security numbers that belong to children. If you use one of these numbers you could unwittingly be charged with identity theft, which leads straight to prison.
The government doesn’t recognize CPNs. But since the federal government doesn’t require a Social Security number for credit applications some mistakenly believe they are legal.
CPN sellers scam clients by suggesting how to fraudulently create identities
There are CPN sellers who provide the instructions for creating separate identities. Those with poor credit or no Social Security number are the main targets. The sellers instruct purchasers to get a new mail-drop location and list a temporary phone number. This helps to bolster the fake profile.
Credit bureaus use several metrics to determine if they are dealing with the right person. So addresses and phone numbers are used this is why CPN sellers encourage clients to change those numbers so that the info can’t be matched.
In December 2019 numerous auto lenders reported altered Social Security numbers used for vehicle applications according to PointPredictive. The majority of these incidents were from Southern California.
Another swindle being seen is substituting the last four digits of a Social Security number with the birthday of the fake identity. “They find a prefix, change the last four digits slightly and sell it to another person, McKenna says. “It might be easy to keep track of, to sell. They create this structure to systematize it.”
In 2019 over $7 billion in vehicle loans involved scams
In 2019 it is estimated that $7 billion in vehicle loans used fraudulent information. This included misrepresented income, employment, identity, and collateral. That is an increase of 5% from 2018.
There is no such thing as a “new credit identity.” If someone or a company says it can do that for you it’s a scam. If a company wants you to apply for an Employer Identification Number instead of a Social Security number they are not legitimate. EINs are not a substitute for a Social Security number.
How Can I Add Payment History & Auto Loans to My CPN Number?
Your Credit Privacy Number is a nine-digit number used to report information to the credit bureaus. These numbers evolved as alternatives to using a Social Security number. Today, any U.S. citizen can receive a CPN instead for use with their credit profile. Once you have a CPN, you can use this number to check your credit history. If you do not see your payment history listed under this number, you can ask your creditors to begin filing the information accurately.
Use your CPN or Social Security number to access your credit report. You can go straight to one of the three credit bureaus for this service or use a third-party provider to check your report. AnnualCreditReport.com is a resource supported by the three bureaus that permits one free credit check each year into your own account.
Verify your credit information. Your lenders should automatically report information such as payment history and auto loans to your credit report. This information would be carried over on your credit report once you receive a CPN instead of using your Social Security number.
Take note of missing or incorrect information. Review your credit report closely and make sure your information is up to date. If your payment history is missing on any account, make a note to yourself.
Contact lenders who have not filed your credit information. Call the lenders who have not reported your credit correctly. Supply your account information with these lenders, and ask for a correction of the problem. Be sure to additionally submit the request in writing, documenting the conversation, in case the lender fails to follow through.
Check your report again in one month. Allow this 30-day period for your lenders to report the information. You cannot report information yourself at any point, so you must rely on your lenders to accomplish this.
Follow up with any tardy lender. If you do not see the information updated, place another phone call and send a second letter. This may continue for some time, but it is the only way you can assure the information is correctly entered.
Dispute any incorrect information. If you notice a lender incorrectly inputs information, file a dispute immediately with each credit bureau. Contact the lender to notify them the dispute has been filed, and ask for an immediate correction. See the Federal Trade Commission website for a sample credit dispute letter.
The credit report you receive using either your CPN or your Social Security number is the same report. The main reason for the use of CPNs instead of standard credit checks with a Social Security number is privacy. You will be able to give lenders your CPN instead of your SSN to maintain better privacy, but the information they receive will be the same.
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