On one level, this is a story about identity theft. About a family where the grandfather, the father and the daughter, all have their identities stolen.
But on a human dynamic level, this is a story about deception. Deception that goes on for so long, is kept so well-hidden, and is done with no apparent feelings of guilt, that it takes what one family thinks it knows about itself, guts it, and pulls the insides-out.
The year is 1993, five years before it’s a federal crime to commit identity theft against individuals. Axton Betz-Hamilton, an only child, is 11 when the family mail goes missing from their roadside mailbox in Portland, Indiana.
Mom, an accountant, opens up a PO box to fix the problem, but the mail continues to go missing. Frustrated, the family tries to file a police report with the local police, but the concept of identity theft is too foreign to register. The family manages the situation, dealing with each unpaid bill and missing magazine subscription one-at-a-time. For Axton, other than missing pen-pal letters, the issue is for the adults to deal with.
That changes when Axton is a college sophomore. Moving into a new apartment, she’s told by the electrical utility they’ll require an additional $100 deposit due to her poor credit history. Confused, she gets a copy of her credit report and is shocked to learn her credit score places her in the second percentile. The report, 10 pages long, lists credit cards and collection agencies back to 1993. She doesn’t recognize them.
The Indiana State police take a report that “unknown thief opened up credit cards in victim’s name.” They give Axton a copy to “show creditors as needed” and tell her, “good luck.” She’s afraid she’ll never own a home or a car or have a credit card because of what this person has done.
In reaction of having her identity stolen as a child, Axton becomes an expert in identity theft, ultimately getting a doctorate in 2012 focusing on child-identity theft victims. Part of her interest was her own story: she kept hoping she’d uncover something about the person who had stolen her identity.
Her wish for an answer to the question of “who” was soon to be granted.
Pam, Axton’s mother, received a cancer diagnosis in 2012, and passed away in February 2013. A few weeks later, Axton’s father found papers and documents that made no sense to him, and called Axton for help. She went to the family farm.
There in the credit cards and birth certificates was the answer: Pam had stolen her daughter’s identity, her husband’s identity, and her father-in-law’s identity. Axton concluded it had all started in 1993, when the family mail went missing.
There had been no red flags. No ostentatious spending-sprees. Her mother beamed guilt-free in a picture after Axton had just received an award for her work on identity theft of minors. They were blind-sided.
Axton’s father spent 46 years with Pam, 38 as her husband. Axton had turned to her mother for help and comfort as she dealt with the fallout from her identity being stolen. As Axton and her father tried to untangle and make sense of things, they faced the topsy-turvy world of suddenly not knowing the person they thought they had known.
“Wow, I really wasted my life,” her dad said to her at one point.
“It’s hard for him,” Axton shared. “the life he was working hard to build was built on lies essentially for all of these years.”
Asked if she would have pressed charges against her mother if she’d found this out while her mother was still alive, Axton says “yes,” as all of Axton’s financial and credit decisions from 19 on have been impacted.
Pam’s ashes are tucked into an urn at Axton’s house, a request made by her mother before she died. Axton acknowledged that one way she copes is to yell at her mother’s ashes whenever a new identity-theft violation is revealed. “I didn’t get a chance to hold her accountable.”
She’s wondered why her mother didn’t confess as she neared death, and has considered the possibility that her mother wasn’t capable of experiencing guilt.
“Psychopaths have no guilt,” she said. “They don’t feel empathy or emotions like the rest of us do.”
Axton and her father continue to be surprised when something new gets uncovered. She figures it will go on for years; they’ll probably never know how her mother spent the money. They’ve estimated about $500,000 of debt was accrued over 20 years, but Pam’s lifestyle wasn’t fancy cars, jewelry, furniture or clothing. Axton wonders if her mother used aliases; if she set up shell corporations; if she lived a double life. Axton wonders.
After Pam died, Axton and her dad never completed the stages of grief people talk about. Dad and I were definitely grieving those first two weeks until we discovered all of this,” Axton said.
“The grieving process stopped and has never restarted…how can you grieve for someone that you obviously didn’t know?”
- Identity Theft Resource Center
- Federal Trade Commission: Identity Theft
- U.S. Department of Justice: Identity Theft
- Identity Theft: History and links to articles
- National Conference of State Legislatures: State Identity Theft laws
- Dr. Axton Betz-Hamilton, Eastern Illinois University
- Portland, Indiana