NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast is where you will find answers to your real-world money questions.
This week’s episode features Axton Betz Hamilton, author of “The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal Family Secrets and Stolen Identity”. Betz-Hamilton also discusses her book with Kim Palmer, personal finance Nerd, about how people can protect themselves and recover from identity theft, even if perpetrated by relatives. Betz-Hamilton suggests that acknowledging the issue is an important step. Then, take steps to protect your privacy.
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Identity theft is a crime where someone steals another person’s personal information to their advantage. Unfortunately, it is rampant. The Federal Trade Commission reports that identity theft has increased steadily over the past two decades. In 2021, there were over 1.4 million reported cases.
You can take steps to reduce your risk. You can start by freezing your credit, keeping your personal information private and offline, and being cautious of emails asking for sensitive data or trying to convince you to click on a link. You should also regularly scan your bank statements, mail, and credit reports to check for suspicious charges or new accounts.
Additional assistance may be available through identity theft protection services. You may be eligible for free protection through your employer, financial institution, credit card issuers, or membership organizations. This could also be because your personal data was exposed.
It is important that you report identity theft if you are a victim. FTC’s reporting portal provides the foundation for you to have fraudulent accounts removed from your credit reports. A checklist for recovery is also available.
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Your personal information should be kept private. Thieves can steal your identity if you post your birth date, pet names, and other personal information online. Be careful when you share information online about yourself, including via social media.
You might consider putting a credit freeze on your children and yourself. The three main credit bureaus (TransUnion Experian, Equifax, and Experian) can freeze your credit, which prevents you from having to go through a credit check in order to open most accounts. This also helps fraudsters. If you wish to apply for a line of credit, you will need to temporarily unfreeze your credit. Both freezing and unfreezing are free.
There are many ways to commit identity theft. Phishing attacks are sophisticated and include emails that look like they came from your bank or a fake email. Any message asking for information should be avoided. If you’re unsure, contact the source (e.g. your bank) or go to its main website.
Learn more about how NerdWallet can help you keep your money safe:
Sean Pyles: Hello, and welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast. Sean Pyles: I’m Sean Pyles. Today we have an exclusive episode for you. Kim Palmer, a regular guest on Smart Money and personal finance Nerd, will host the next episode of our book club series. Kim, who’s this episode talking to?
Kim Palmer: Axton Betz Hamilton is my contact. She is the author of “The Less People know About Us: A Mysterious Mystery of Betrayal Family Secrets and Stolen Identity” which is about identity theft. We’ll also talk about her experiences as a victim of identity theft growing up and how those who have it can recover.
Sean Pyles: Okay. Let me know how it goes.
Kim Palmer: Thank you. Axton, welcome at Smart Money.
Axton Betz Hamilton: I am grateful for your hospitality. It’s great being here.
Kim Palmer: Your book is about how your mother stole your identity as a child. She robbed you and your father of hundreds of thousand of dollars. It also destroyed your credit rating and your trust in the world. You also share the shock you felt at discovering this fraud after your mother died, and the trauma you went through during the years when the theft continued.
Your book’s title, I believe, refers to the fact you grew up in complete secrecy. Your parents told you to keep your curtains closed and not answer the door. They also told you that strangers had stolen your identity, so your utilities would be cut off or your money would disappear. What did you think of this as a child?
Axton Betz Hamilton: One of my parents’ favorite things was that she would name possible suspects from people she knew, such as extended family members, friends, neighbors, etc., and then give rational reasons for why they might have been involved in identity theft. Not only were strangers involved, especially in the beginning but she also implicated more people with whom she was close.
We became isolated as a result. We stopped speaking with extended family members. We stopped speaking with extended family members. We isolated ourselves to protect our misguided protection. My mom was worried about tipping off the identity theft thief. We aren’t willing to tell them anything that could give them more information, or let them know we know our identities were stolen.
Back then, I was told that my parents had been robbed. But that is not true. After Mom had ruined her credit, she moved on with my father’s, then on to mine, and finally on to my grandfather.
Kim Palmer: That sounds so difficult and difficult to learn from. Did you find that this type of secrecy is a hallmark of parents who do this to their children in your research?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Yes. Absolutely. There are also patterns of secrecy within families where a parent steals the identity of their child that extend beyond financial secrecy. There are also patterns of secrecy regarding relationships. I am referring to extramarital affairs and other matters of this nature. It is not about all things in families where familial identity theft happens that there are patterns of secrecy.
Kim Palmer: It sounds so difficult. Later, you find out that your mother was the one responsible. I believe that you calculated that she took half a million from your family. Can you tell me about the financial consequences it had on your family?
Axton Betz Hamilton: Dad and I estimated that somewhere between half a billion and $600,000. These funds were either misappropriated or missing. One result was that I graduated with my master’s, bachelor’s and Ph.D. along with $100,000 student loan debt. Some of those I borrowed in graduate school. My mom gave me $3,000 per semester for my undergraduate degree. She would then tell me that we couldn’t afford student loans and she would say, “You must take out student loans to pay for your housing.” So I did. And one thing she told me was, “Don’t talk to dad about it.” He is embarrassed that we cannot afford to pay full tuition for college. ”
After she died, Dad and me discussed student loan debt. Mom had student loans. While she was completing her doctorate, she died. When she was discussing her student loan debt, she mentioned how she had a huge amount of student loans that she owed. Dad and I were unaware of this. My student loan debt was brought up by Dad, who said that it was impossible. It’s impossible to have so much student loan debt. Your college was paid for by us.” I told Dad, “Wait! What was it that you were giving Mom for a semester? It was $11,000. It was $8,000 per semester for my housing, which Mom claimed they couldn’t afford. He gave it to Mom and I don’t know where it went.
Kim Palmer: Wow. The book is full of references to your father. It almost feels like I know him. All of it had such an impact on him. What is his current situation?
Axton Betz Hamilton: So, one of his ways of recovering from this, although it may sound a bit outlandish, but it is something that all Harley-Davidson riders will appreciate: He was able purchase a Harley Davidson motorcycle very soon after my mother’s passing. This opportunity came when a customer of his was diagnosed as having terminal cancer. The customer also knew that my mom had purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and that my dad wanted one. He had one and offered it to my father for a very reasonable price. It was also the amount in a check account that was in my mom’s name. I replied, “Dad! This is like divine intervention.” This is what you have to do. Dad said, “I don’t know that’s a responsible way to do it.” I shouldn’t do it,” blah, blah, blah, blah.
I talked him into it. He didn’t need to be talked into it. He was keen to have the bike. He loved riding the bike, even if he received mail addressed to Mom. Or if he was dealing with financial issues that were stressful, he got on his bike. He started attending bike rallies, charity rides, and other events. This allowed him to meet people who knew him well, but didn’t know his Mom. It was important for him to reestablish his identity and what he wanted from life.
Kim Palmer: Yeah. It sounds very healing. How about you? What are your thoughts?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Sure. The rebuilding of credit began when I was 19. It was then that I realized I had been the victim of identity theft. That was when I applied to electric service for my first apartment at college. They sent me a notice to tell me they needed $100 to cover my poor credit. I assumed it was because I didn’t have one. I ordered a copy my credit report and found that it was 10 pages long. It was full of fraudulent credit cards entries and collection agency entries. This was back when my parents were stolen.
It was very difficult to repair my credit. What I did was dispute fraudulent accounts. But I was worried that even if all the fraudulent accounts were removed from my credit report, it would still leave me with a credit score of zero because I didn’t have any credit. I meant that I had student loan debt that was not in repayment. That was it.
So I began to work hard to improve my credit and to get rid of the things that had been causing me to have a poor credit score. I ended up paying some very high interest rates, even though it wasn’t my fault. My first car loan was for a 5-year-old car that my dad still drives. The interest rate was 18.23% and my mom was a cosigner. My first credit card had an APR of 29.99%, a $300 annual limit, and a $69 per year fee. They made me pay this before they sent me the card. It helped me rebuild my credit, even though I was having trouble getting some of the fraudulent accounts removed.
Kim Palmer: This brings us to the moment I believe to be so powerful in your book. It is when you discover the extent of identity theft. Can you please read the prologue for us?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Sure. It had been a long day at school, and the roots of a headache were growing near my eyes. While I had hours of homework ahead, I was contemplating a nap as I walked through my parking lot. The manila envelope that I found folded over and stuffed in my mailbox was not something I wanted to deal. I groaned in resignation and pulled the envelope from its box. It was much larger than I expected a credit card report to be. It must come with lots of instructions, I thought.
“Most people wanted to leave it at the front door, but I leaned against my green floral print couch and tore it open. I can still recall this moment in slow motion. There have been moments in my life where reality has slipped in front of me. I felt the adhesive give way as my finger slipped under the flap of the envelope. The paper began to tear at irregular intervals.
“Those were the last tangible sensations I had of an existence that I knew. Then, as certain as the edges of my paper, another existence replaced it. A new life, a completely different identity. The envelope contained no instructions. Instead, I found the entire report with the bulk of the term paper full of fraudulent credit card charges, collection agency entries, and my name in the envelope. When I was 11 years old, my first credit line had been opened. This was also the year that my parents’ identities were stolen.
“My credit score was 382. It was a good score, but I thought it might be better. I mean, 100 is always perfect. It was always in school. The key was then shown to me. With a score of 380, I was in the second percentile among all scores in the United States. That’s about as low as you can get. My body was folded over the sofa, and my mind struggled with the strange numbers. They’ll surely know that I was a child. This is something I could not have done. The sting of my tears washed over me. I was shocked. ”
Kim Palmer: This is so powerful. We are so grateful that you read it.
Your book revealed one shocking fact to me: it is not uncommon for loved ones to commit fraud. Is it more difficult to recover than being the victim in a fraud committed by strangers?
Axton Betz Hamilton: Yes, from an emotional perspective. If you know the offender and they are a family member, it is possible that there was a relationship before the identity theft. It could have been close. Those feelings of anger and betrayal can cause irreparable damage to a relationship.
Based on my research, identity theft can actually cause family dysfunction when an offender is a family member. It can be difficult to make a financial recovery when a family member is the offender. This is because victims often won’t report to avoid getting their loved one into trouble. In the case of college students, who still need money from Mom and Dad to pay tuition and cover living expenses, it’s possible that they are also financially dependent on their offender. If an adult child takes the identity of their parent, an older adult might be financially dependent on them. They may need the adult child to care for their parents or to allow them to live independently.
Kim Palmer: It is so complex. Where should someone start if they discover that they have been victim to identity theft? You mention going to the police as one way of getting help. Where do you begin?
Axton Betz Hamilton: I didn’t feel like going to the police was helpful. I write in my book about how I hoped for a response with lights, sirens, and possibly gunfire. This has been going on since I was 11 years old. Because I was 19 years old, and this has been going on in my family since I was 11.
They did indeed take a file, although victims sometimes have difficulty getting law enforcement to do so because they sometimes see it as a civil matter rather than a criminal matter. However, that report can be very important and you will need it to provide to creditors as proof that you are an identity theft victim. Unfortunately, some people will contact creditors to say that they are not victims of identity theft.
Creditors will often ask for evidence to prove that you have been a victim of identity theft in order to eliminate those who falsely claim they are victims. This is usually a police report.
A victim can also freeze their credit, something that wasn’t possible when I was 19, and was going through this process. Anyone can now freeze their credit. That means that anyone can freeze their credit. You must contact the three credit reporting agencies to request a freeze. After that, nobody can open any new accounts under your name except you. If you are applying for a new card and there is a credit freeze, you will need to temporarily lift it by contacting the credit agencies. Once you have obtained your new card, you can have it removed. Credit freezes can be used to prevent new accounts being opened in your name. It does not stop existing account fraud.
Kim Palmer: Would you recommend that parents also do this for their children? Children are so susceptible to this.
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Right. As a parent, you can freeze your child’s credit. My experience with parents being able freeze credit for their children has taught me that if they want to steal their child’s identity, they won’t be able to do so.
If you’re a good parent and want to protect your child against identity theft, you can freeze their credit. My mother would not have placed a credit freeze on my credit report if credit freezes were available for children when I was a kid. Because she was using my credit, there’s no way.
Kim Palmer: Right. Yes. There are other ways you can protect your credit going forward.
Axton Betz Hamilton: I am not a fan of peer-to-peer payments apps like Venmo and PayPal. These apps were originally created to allow you to make financial transactions with trusted individuals. These cards are not as secure as debit or credit cards and you may lose your information or money. These are not the cards I use. They are not trustworthy. They are used to purchase items on Facebook Marketplace by people I don’t trust.
I also don’t use public Wi-Fi to check my bank accounts. Even if the email looks legitimate, I won’t click on any links contained in emails. Because there are sophisticated phishing emails that can be used to steal your personal information, I will open a separate browser to view the website. These fraudsters can make fraudulent emails look legitimate. They may even use your bank logo or bank account number in the email. Never click on any links in emails, especially if it involves financial information.
Kim Palmer: Yeah. These are great tips. You’re probably a huge fan of cash. Cash is safer than cash.
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Oh, I do. I, for example, travel quite a bit by car. I live in central Texas. This is exactly what you do. A car is essential. You need a car to get to Target.
It is always a concern to me what will happen if the gas station’s credit card readers stop working. What if the Target credit card readers stop working? As a precaution, I have cash to pay for things.
Kim Palmer: Do that belief still hold true today? I mean, I understand you spoke about peer-to-peer applications, but what about other financial systems? Do you think you have a different approach to applying for a mortgage, a car loan, or any other financial product? Do you feel more nervous about applying for loans, or do you prefer to keep it private?
Axton Betz Hamilton: Although this is going to make it sound a bit old-fashioned, we can now apply online for credit cards, car loans, and mortgages. We’ve been doing that for quite some time. I want to be in a long-term relationship with someone. I would like to visit my bank to have a conversation and to build trust with the loan officers. That trusting relationship is what I need. It’s not possible to do it online. I must meet the applicant and feel comfortable with them.
Kim Palmer: This makes sense. You can also access a lot of information online, especially if you use social media to share it. Is it possible for strangers, or people we know to commit these types of crimes?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Oh, absolutely. One thing I discuss a lot when discussing identity theft with my students is that one of the most important pieces of information an identity thief must have to steal your identity, is your birthdate. And all those people who put their birthdates on Facebook, it’s public. Even if you are a good friend, can you really trust your friends? This information doesn’t have to be on Facebook. People can steal your identity using it.
There are many Facebook users who use their maiden names to connect with high school classmates. An identity thief will often need your mother’s maidenname to steal your identity. To steal your child’s identity, an identity thief would need your maiden name. This is why I do not recommend it. Take your maiden name off Facebook. It’s risky, especially if you have children.
Kim Palmer: Yeah. Kim Palmer: That’s a great tip. It was surprising to me that identity theft was made a federal crime in 1998. Is it possible for victims to be protected by the fact that it’s a federal crime?
Axton Betz Hamilton: Yes. It was a crime against customers that began in 1998. The creditors were the victims before that because, according to the law, it was the creditors who lost the money and not the people. All that changed in 1998. As a result, there were more resources available to help victims.
The Federal Trade Commission website, identitytheft.gov is a good place to start. You can report identity theft on their Consumer Sentinel Database. This database is shared with multiple law enforcement agencies as identity theft often crosses jurisdictional borders. This clearinghouse contains identity theft reports, where you can also add your identity theft report.
There are many educational resources available. The Identity Theft Resource Center is a non-profit organization. They provide education as well as other resources. A call center is also available for victims to get help with their identity theft case. Because of the 1998 law, resources were immediately devoted to individual victims. The truth is that thieves have changed their strategies over the years at a faster pace than laws can keep up with.
Kim Palmer: Those are some great resources. Those are great resources.
I was curious to know if you have a Harley for your dad.
Axton Betz Hamilton: I have to be honest, it was my job. I know I sound like an academic geek, but I really did that. I focused my efforts on academic training and switched my focus away from child identity loss and towards family identity theft. Because I was a victim of child identity theft, I began my career focusing on child identity theft. In reality, I was a victim of familial identity theft.
Once I realized that, I changed my research focus slightly. What helps me is understanding identity theft through my research and helping others by disseminating my findings through presentations and publications, as well as speaking about my book and spreading the word about it.
Kim Palmer: Absolutely. Kim Palmer: I agree. It is important for them to feel understood and supported.
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Right. Victims from all over the globe have spoken to me, and they keep saying “Oh. This was the first time I had heard of anyone going through something like this.
This is something that nobody talks about. We need to talk more about this as a society. My research and my book hopefully will spark those conversations.
Kim Palmer: Yes. Kim Palmer: Yes. We are grateful for your participation in our podcast. Are there any last thoughts you would like to share with our listeners.
Axton Betz Hamilton: I hope people take something from this podcast and the book that is related to my earlier point, that we need to discuss more about familial identity thieves. If you have been a victim to familial identity theft, reach out. Reach out to me, to the Federal Trade Commission, to the Identity Theft Resource Center or your local law enforcement.
These conversations are important. Let’s empower victims so they can help themselves. I want people to feel empowered and in a position to either help themselves or others.
Kim Palmer: Thank you so much, Axton.
This is it for the episode. To share your thoughts on how to budget, pay off debt or manage finances, shoot us an email at [email protected] Visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode. Remember to rate, review and subscribe wherever you get this podcast.
Here’s a brief disclaimer. We are not investment or financial advisors. This information is for entertainment and general education purposes only and may not be applicable to your particular circumstances.
I, Kim Palmer and Sean Pyles produced this episode. Liz Weston was our editor. Kaely Monahan mixed the audio. A big thank you to everyone at the NerdWallet copy counter for their assistance.
Now, let’s turn to the Nerds until next time.