When Axton Betz-Hamilton won a national award for her research on child identity theft, her mother and father were there to show how proud they were. The honor bestowed on her by the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences in 2012 came after years of battling threatening letters and phone calls from collection agencies, and a credit score that had sunk to 308 and made even signing up for electricity problematic.
Her parents’ identity had been stolen when she was a child and, at 19, she discovered that her own identity when she was 11. This person racked up $500,000 in credit card debt. What she did not know: The culprit had actually traveled with her to the ceremony, sat at her table as her name was announced and stood next to her smiling in a photograph as a proud parent. That thief was her own mother — the one person she went to for advice and consolation.
Betz-Hamilton, 34, now assistant professor of consumer studies at Eastern Illinois University, spoke to MarketWatch about the fallout:
MarketWatch: You’re 34 now, but you discovered at the age of 19 that your identity had been stolen years earlier. What happened?
Betz-Hamilton: I was renting an apartment and tried to establish an electric service. A few days later the electricity company sent me a letter to say it was requiring an additional $100 deposit due to my low credit score. I was expecting my credit report to be no more than half a page, but it had fraudulent credit card entries and credit collection agencies that dated back to 1993.
MW: This led to nearly two decades of battling with debt collectors and credit bureaus. How did you finally find out the truth?
B-H: My mother died in 2013 from Burkitt’s Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, a very rare form of leukemia. After she died, my father found an overdue credit card statement that had my name on it. He said, “We raised you better than that! What were you doing?” I told him it must have been part of the identity theft that had been going on my entire life. But he said, “The credit card statement is in my hand. It’s in here with your birth certificate.” And my blood ran cold. It was in a box at my parent’s home and with a P.O. Box as an address that only my mother had access to.
MW: It must be frustrating that you only found out after your mother had passed away.
B-H: She did not want a funeral and did not want an obituary. I believe that was because she wanted to continue to hide what she was doing and was afraid someone would recognize her. My mom’s real name was Pamela Betz. She often went by the name Pamela Elliott, her maiden name and the name she used on Facebook.
Listen to our new podcast: Money, Markets & More (or subscribe on iTunes): Paying good money to get shamed at the gym? and Playing golf has gone the way of the three-martini lunch.
MW: Did you learn anything about her from her Facebook account?
B-H: I got into it after she died. There have been indications that there may have been a second life. She spent a lot of time in Ohio and may have owned property in Ohio. [They lived in Indiana.]
MW: You recently told the podcast, “Criminal,” that she was cremated. Where are her ashes now?
B-H: Her ashes are sitting on a bottom shelf in my living room.
MW: What would you ask her if she were still alive?
B-H: “Why did you do this?” Of course, she’d probably lie to me.
MW: Your mother must have had some kind of personality disorder to accompany you to the award ceremony for your work on identity theft — and to actually stand there smiling for the photograph.
B-H: There’s no glimmer of guilt on my mother’s face at all. I looked into what psychological disorders have lack of guilt as a core feature. There was one answer: psychopathy. Psychopaths are motivated by power and, for a lot of people, money is a form of power. Axe murderers who walk among us who don’t feel guilt. My mom was, for lack of a better word, a low-grade psychopath. They are world-class manipulators. I was telling her everything I was doing to find the person who was stealing my identity, so she was always one step ahead.
MW: Was she nurturing and loving?
B-H: I thought so, but I was so isolated growing up that I did not see other examples of motherly love. I am an only child and we lived on a farm in Portland, Ind., a quarter mile from the next nearest home. I did not have a lot of opportunity to hang out with other people or even spend the night at friends’ houses. Mom had said her identity and dad’s were stolen, but in reality, she ruined her own credit and stole dad’s identity. I was told that these families and friends could have been stealing our family’s identity.
MW: Wait, she made you suspicious of other people?
B-H: Yes, my mother created reasons why we should suspect other relatives and friends as being the identity thieves. Dad and I believed it and we had not spoken to many of those relatives and friends for 20 years. We were taught to suspect everyone as a potential identity thief.
MW: What did she do for a living?
B-H: She had a professional background in finance.
MW: And there were no deathbed confessions?
B-H: I got married 36 hours before she died in her hospital room on the oncology floor. My fiancé and I had been engaged for seven years and I wanted my mom to see me get married.
MW: And there was no secret closet?
B-H: We found documents about different accounts, but the money has completely vanished. My mom had really nothing to show for it. She drove a ‘99 Lincoln Town Car.
Don’t miss: 6 white-collar criminals for hire
MW: How are you and your dad doing?
B-H: It feels like he was never married to her. There is this strange disconnect knowing that world wasn’t real. Dad and I have re-established relationships with our extended family on my dad’s side. A lot of them have said, “We never liked your mother.” My mom didn’t have a lot of family. My uncle and older cousin on that side have had a really hard time grasping that she did this.
MW: How’s your credit today?
B-H: It’s good. I have been able to remove all of the fraudulent entries from my credit report. It took 16 years.
MW: But even though the statute of limitations on credit card debt in Illinois is five years, you’re still getting phone calls from debt collection agencies?
B-H: Collection agencies will sell debts they purchased to other collection agencies for pennies on the dollar, and they sell them on, and so on. They call about debt that’s 15 or 20 years old. Each state has a different statute of limitations and collection agencies don’t want you to know that and expect that you don’t. When I tell them they usually reply, “Um, oh, OK, have a nice day!” and they hang up on me.
MW: This could be a book or even a movie.
B-H: I’ve started writing a book and have around 20,000 words written. It’s about the life of a victim of identity theft.
MW: I’d read that. You have dealt with this very difficult situation with dignity and humor. I salute you for that.
B-H: To survive I have fallen back on my research into identity theft. I want to dissect it and understand every dimension of it. It gives me a conceptual framework of what mom has done financially. That has helped me, instead of processing this on an emotional level.
(This interview was edited and condensed.)
Get a daily roundup of the top reads in personal finance delivered to your inbox. Subscribe to MarketWatch's free Personal Finance Daily newsletter. Sign up here.
Click here to open external link