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How having my identity stolen as a kid shaped my money and career choices as an adult

Axton Betz-Hamilton
Axton Betz-Hamilton, right, with her mother in 2010.
Courtesy Axton Betz-Hamilton

"There's nothing in Portland for you." That was a refrain I heard from Mom often about our Indiana hometown. It was one of the many ways she disparaged where we lived, where she worked, and where I went to school. The complaints became more frequent and more forceful after she, Dad, and I first had our identities stolen when I was 11 years old.

The thief opened credit card accounts in my name, charged them up to and over the limit, and did not pay them off.

According to my mom, the people who surrounded us were not to be trusted. Mom had theories for why several of them, including extended relatives and family friends, could be the scammer who had stolen our identities — who, in one case, was bold enough to walk into the Portland Walmart and write bad checks in my mother's name.

We lost relationships with extended family members and family friends, and I left Portland as soon as I could, seven days after I turned 18. A year later, when I moved to my first apartment, I learned how much the theft had affected my finances. I had a credit report with pages of accounts and debts that weren't mine and a credit score of 380.

My first credit card had a limit of only $300.

I had a credit report with pages of accounts and debts that weren't mine and a credit score of 380. My first credit card had a limit of only $300.
Axton Betz-Hamilton
Professor, South Dakota State University

In response to what I felt was a lack of response from creditors, credit reporting agencies, and law enforcement, I decided to try and become part of the solution. I became an academic, focusing my Master's degree research and doctoral dissertation on identity theft.

I wanted to use what I learned to help other victims — and hopefully learn something that would help me solve my own case along the way.

Putting my financial life together after identity theft took years

Starting when I was 19, I contacted original creditors, obtained copies of my credit reports, and disputed fraudulent charges through the credit bureaus. I also filed a police report.

I got one credit card and began to establish credit, but the damage from the identity theft meant I paid exorbitant rates for what I was able to obtain. Because the annual percentage rates (APRs) were so high, I seldom used the card. It was only for emergencies and I paid it off promptly.

The APR on my car loan was 18.23% and that made the payment high enough that I scrimped on groceries. Back in 2005, my grocery budget was $15 a week.

My credit report was not clear of fraudulent entries until 2009, eight years after I started trying to clear it.

One of the most challenging parts of the experience was dealing with the customer service representatives of the original creditors who didn't listen. The representative at the first original creditor I called told me I was not a victim of identity theft because someone had made two payments on the card before stopping and "identity thieves don't do that."

Identity theft is a crime where you are often treated as guilty, because it's your name and Social Security number, until you're proven innocent. The frustration with this process is the equivalent of screaming into a well — you're loud but yet it doesn't seem like you're heard.

The thief was a relative, I found out: My mom

When I was 31, Mom died of a rare form of leukemia. Less than two weeks later, Dad and I discovered she was the perpetrator of our identity theft case. She was the scammer.

Her identity had never been stolen. She destroyed her own credit and moved on to Dad's, then mine, and then her father-in-law's. Those bad checks at Walmart? She wrote them. The sheriff's department had attempted to arrest her for this years earlier, but Dad explained that we were victims of identity theft and the sheriff's department backed off.

Once it was known she was the identity thief, I began questioning everything she ever said to me, including her negative assessments of friends and family members. I set out to find the truth for myself, talking to many of the people Mom had told Dad and me to suspect as the identity thief, some of whom I hadn't seen in over 20 years. Many of those conversations are documented in my new book, "The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity."

Relatives felt that Mom "had taken Dad away from" his side of the extended family and that they never cared for her. They thought something was "odd" about Mom but could never put their finger on what. One said he felt that Mom thought "she was better than everyone else" and that he didn't like her for that reason. Another of Mom's friends said she never mentioned the identity theft to her, though it plagued our daily lives for 20 years.

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These conversations were illuminating not only for what was said, but also for what didn't happen. These former friends of Mom's and our relatives didn't attack me, though that was what Mom had taught me to expect, especially from my extended family. They seemed genuinely sorry for not being able to help more "back then" — in our "old" life, when the scammer was not known to us.

Since learning the truth, I've embraced transparency: I show my husband every letter I get, because I don't want him to think that I'm in any way behaving the way Mom did (she stole and hid our mail). And he and I both make sure to monitor our credit regularly.

We've been able to reestablish relationships with several of those estranged relatives and friends. Since 2013, we've attended reunions and had family over to my Dad's house for the holidays. Over the last six years, I've learned that so many of the people Mom taught me to fear, and to dislike, are perfectly fine people. I had to have my own interactions with them to develop my own firsthand perception about them, and to trust my instincts.

Axton Betz-Hamilton is an expert in identity theft. She speaks on the topic at a wide range of conferences and has won multiple awards for her research, teaching, and service. Axton has a master's degree in consumer sciences and retailing and a Ph.D. in human development and family studies, focusing on child identity theft and elder financial exploitation perpetrated by family members. She teaches at South Dakota State University.

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