NEW YORK (MainStreet) — There's a dangerous new scam making the rounds, preying on people with bad credit. It's called a credit privacy number and it promises to wipe your credit slate clean. But not only will it not help you to purge your credit history, it may also have you facing serious criminal charges.

What Is a Credit Privacy Number?

Put simply, a credit privacy number is a nine-digit number designed to replace your Social Security number when applying for credit. It might not sound totally kosher, and indeed, it's not.

"It's a strange, dark world," says Mike Sullivan, director of education with Take Charge America, a nonprofit credit counseling agency. "The law says that for the most part, we don't have to share our Social Security number with credit agencies or anyone else. But if you want a file, you need a number." And so, the so-called "credit privacy number" is a way to get a credit file without giving your SSN out.

"The dilemma is that it's a nine-digit number that's not your SSN and can't be someone else's," says Sullivan. Finding a number that you can legitimately use as a credit privacy number is very difficult to do. "People use it like an SSN, but then the Social Security Administration assigns it to someone else, or it was a deceased person's number," he says. If that's the case, whether you intended to do so or not, you'd be committing fraud and potentially subject to serious criminal penalties.

So Who Is Getting Credit Privacy Numbers?

"Most people aren't creative or clever enough to think of this on their own," says Sullivan. Instead, they're likely to have the idea introduced to them by a scammer. "A company will tell you they can start your credit file over," he says. Of course, that's going to cost you a hefty fee, in addition to potentially making you both the victim and perpetrator or serious fraud. "You have no idea where this number came from," he says.

Sullivan says that the credit privacy numbers were initially set up to protect the identities of congressional representatives. He notes that for celebrities and people who have a great amount of wealth, they might also have some utility. People in witness protection programs are also generally assigned credit privacy numbers to protect them from criminal reprisals. However, Sullivan says, "If Warren Buffet called me, I'd tell him to talk to his attorney about it. I've never had a client come to me and say they're using a credit privacy number or other secondary number."

John Heath, the directing attorney of LexingtonLaw, says the major credit reporting bureaus don't accept these numbers anyway. "You have the option to not give them your Social Security Number, but they rely upon other information to identify you in that case, such as your name and address," he says. He doesn't think they're ever a good idea. "They're for consumers who think this is an easy way to leave their bad credit behind," he says. "It's not just a bad idea, it can subject them to criminal liability."

Heath believes that people who are very desperate might try to get a credit privacy number. "If someone needs good credit to get into a house or even get a job and some guy tells you he can wipe your credit history out, that might sound attractive," he says. He quickly adds, "it's nothing more than a scam and it's unfortunate that people are being taken in by it."

What's more, Heath points out that often times you're being given a Social Security Number that's been assigned to a child. "The consumer gets them and might be inadvertently committing identity theft," Heath says. A judge is likely not to have a lot of sympathy for someone who defrauded a child while trying to find a short cut to repair their credit.

The bottom line is that there's no easy way to repair bad credit. You have to pull your credit report, remove false information, pay down old debts and basically do what everyone else does when repairing their bad credit. Looking for a short cut won't just leave you with bad credit. It will also leave you hundreds or even thousands of dollars poorer and perhaps looking at criminal charges. No matter how tempted you might be, do not use a credit privacy number.

--Written by Nicholas Pell for MainStreet