In 2012, Dr. Axton Betz-Hamilton was presented a national award for her research on child identity theft.
The inspiration behind her quest to better understand child identity theft was Betz-Hamilton's own identity being stolen at the ripe age of eleven years old.
Though her parents had their own identities stolen, Betz-Hamilton wasn't aware that hers was stolen until she was 19 years old. She tells MarketWatch that she had just moved into an apartment and was trying to set up her electricity when the company sent her a letter asking her for an extra $100 deposit because of her low credit score. Betz-Hamilton recalls:
“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.”
She discovered her credit score was a low 308 because a “stranger” had racked up over $500,000 of credit card debt under her name.
For years, she was left dealing with collection agencies constantly calling her and sending her threatening letters.
Just a year after she received the award for her work, Betz-Hamilton learned that the “stranger” who stole her 11-year-old identity wasn't a stranger at all.
It was her mother.
It was the same mother who stood by her side as she accepted her nationally-recognized award. It was the same mother in whose hospital room Betz-Hamilton married her husband, so that her mother could witness the marriage before she died.
According to MarketWatch, it wasn't until Betz-Hamilton's mother passed away in 2013 that Betz-Hamilton learned it was the one person she trusted the most who had stolen her identity.
She explains the moment her dad inadvertently gave her the clue that led to the realization:
"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."
Betz-Hamilton eventually discovered that her mom may have been living two separate lives while she was alive.
Even though her mom's real name was Pamela Betz, she often went by her maiden name, Pamela Elliot. Elliot is the last name she used for her Facebook account, which is where Betz-Hamilton discovered her mom also had ties to Ohio, despite them being from Indiana:
“I got into [her Facebook] 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.”
She ponders whether that is why she was adamant about not having a funeral or an obituary after she passed away.
Betz-Hamilton tells MarketWatch that she now believes her mom was a “low-grade psychopath” and a “world-class manipulator.”
“I was telling her everything I was doing to find the person who was stealing my identity, so she was always one step ahead.”
Interestingly, Pamela, who had a professional background in finance, had even convinced her daughter and her husband that they couldn't have friends or trust their family members because they could have been the people stealing their identities.
They both believed her, because they loved her.
Today, Betz-Hamilton and her father are continuing to survive, and after finally being able to remove all of the fraudulent entries from her credit report, her credit score has improved.
As her mom's ashes sit at the bottom of her bookshelf, Betz-Hamilton continues to research identity theft, because for her it is better to understand what her mother has done financially than to try to process everything emotionally.
The now 34-year-old assistant professor of consumer studies does, however, admit that if she could ask her mom one last question, she would ask “why?”