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Financial Crime Conversation Podcast

Episode 1: Identity Theft – from victim to expert, and change advocate

Renata Galvao talks to Axton Betz-Hamilton about one of the fastest growing crimes in the world, which is one that has a deep personal importance to our guest. It was due to a personal and painful experience that Axton has made investigating and denouncing identity theft her life’s work.

Host: Renata Galvao
Guest: Axton Betz-Hamilto

About Axton Betz-Hamilton
She holds a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies, with a focus on child identity theft. She teaches at South Dakota State University and is the author of the book 'The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity'.

  • RENATA: Welcome to the Financial Crime Conversation podcast from Refinitiv an LSEG business, where we explore the human cost of financial crime. We take a look at the impact the financial crime has on individuals and society through the lens of our guests who have experienced it, have insider knowledge of it and are willing to share their story with us.

    In this episode, we'll be covering one of the fastest growing crimes in the world, which is one that has a deep personal importance to me and to our guest today. I am talking with Axton Bentz Hamilton. She holds a Ph.D. in human development and family studies with the focus on child identity theft.

    She teaches at South Dakota State University and is the author of the book “The Less People Know About US A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets and Stolen Identity.” It was due to a personal and painful experience that Axton made investigating and denouncing identity theft her life's work.

    Axton, when did you find out that your identity had been stolen?

    AXTON: I found out my identity had been stolen in 2001, and at that time I was 19 years old, and I was in the process of moving off campus to my own apartment, so I was in college at the time.

    And what sort of triggered it all was I called the electric company to establish service at my new apartment, and they told me the date and time they would be there, and I thought OK, things are moving along. This is this is going well and are getting closer to moving into the apartment. And a few days later, they sent me a letter in the mail stating that I needed to provide a 100-dollar security deposit due to my poor credit score.

    And I thought it was because I didn't have a credit score and I knew enough about credit at 19 to know that having no credit can be just as challenging as having bad credit. But there was a number to call at the bottom of the letter to obtain a free copy of my credit report, and I called it, simply out of curiosity because I wanted to see what a credit report looked like. I wanted to see what this reporting agency had on me. I was just really curious about it and in some ways, a little creeped out that, you know, this kind of Big Brother entity had a report on me.

    And about six weeks later, a large manila envelope arrived in the mail and I saw it was from the credit reporting agency. And I thought to myself before I opened it, credit reports must be really hard to read. It must come with a lot of instructions and disclosures because my credit report should have been, maybe at most, half a page, name, address, a couple of student loans at that time. And it should have been it, you know, half a page. That's what I was expecting. I wasn't expecting a large manila envelope. I was expecting a regular sized envelope with one piece of paper that was, you know, in a trifled form. And I opened the envelope and very quickly realized that credit reports are not difficult to read at all.

    They don't come with a lot of instructions or disclosures, but rather mine was ten pages long and full of credit card entries and associated collection agency entries that dated back to the time that my parents’ identities had been stolen in 1993.

    So, the person responsible for their identity theft was likely responsible for mine as well. And at that time, my credit score was 380. And you know, at 19, I didn't know what that meant either until I read the fine print and saw that my credit score was in the second percentile of all credit scores in the nation.

    RENATA: So, you had that information that your parents’ identities had been stolen when you were a child, right?

    AXTON: Yes. Yes. I knew that their identities had been stolen back in 1993. But back at that time, no one knew anything about child identity theft. In fact, barely anyone knew anything about identity theft. You know, it just wasn't. It wasn't as commonly understood of a problem back in the nineties as it is today.

    RENATA: I've been through something similar. I also had my name used and it happens when I was a child and I remember being nine years old and getting letters at my home with my name in it. And as a child, I would imagine that it was a prince or princess or some character from a fairy tale. And then I would open it, and there was a lot of numbers that I didn't understand.

    And of course, I only got to understand when I was a teenager, and I think that people that haven't gone through it, they don't comprehend that the impact that it can have on the person to know that your name has been abused in that way.

    And I read quite a few of the papers that you wrote in your academic work, and there is one that you specifically wrote about the effects of identity theft and people that had their identities stolen. And you explained that identity theft is one of those crimes where you are guilty until proven otherwise.

    So, going back at the time, I mean, you opened the credit report letter, you were a college student so excited to start your life. What did you feel when you realized that it had happened to you?

    AXTON: I felt my heart kind of fall through the floor because, you know, I went to college with the idea that, you know, I'm going to get away from the identity theft and not going to live under the, you know, the shadow of my parents' identity theft anymore. I'm not going to have those struggles, here I am in college, you know, I'm working towards my degree. You know, this is, the opportunity I have for a better life you know, when you're that age and you're, you know, in college, the possibilities seem endless.

    And because of my credit score, I felt like I would never own anything. You know, the things that people take for granted, getting it, getting a credit card, getting a car, having a nice apartment or getting a mortgage loan.

    I felt like those things would always be out of reach for me and through no fault of my own. And I wondered why, who was responsible for this? And you know, it's one thing to do it to adults. You know, my parents, but it's another thing to do it to their child. And I wanted to know who was so angry with my parents that they would do this to them for at that time, eight years and then also do it to me at the same time. You know, what do we do that was, you know, that was so terrible.

    RENATA: So, you finished your PhD in 2012, I believe. And then shortly after that is when you discovered who was this person that was so angry, as you said, that had stolen your identity and your parents' identity. And it turns out that it was someone very close to you. Right?

    AXTON: So, you know, at 19, I was very frustrated with the response that I received from, you know, individuals and entities that were supposed to be supportive. And again, that whole guilty until proven innocent thing that goes along with identity theft. I felt that, because it was my name, my job security number, I felt that presumption of what you did every time I would call a creditor for assistance or every time, I would call a collection agency and say, look this wasn't me. I didn't do this. I was under 18 at the time. I was so frustrated with that response that by the time I got into my master's programme, I decided to focus on studying identity theft.

    At that time, I focused on how people were protecting themselves from identity theft and how much did they perceive identity theft to be a problem? Because again, this is early 2000 people still really didn't know a lot about identity theft. You know, the general public was just learning to be concerned about it.

    And I went onto my doctoral programme and focused my research on child identity theft. I finished my doctorate in August of 2012. I started my first faculty position and, my mom was diagnosed with cancer - actually, she was diagnosed with cancer the same day that I officially graduated with my doctorate. And she passed away in February of 2013. And it was 13 days after she passed away. My dad called me, and he was livid because he had found a credit card statement, in a file folder that was in a file box that my mom had in an outbuilding on their property. And that credit card statement was in my name, and it was over limit, and the credit card statement had a due date 1 1 of 01 so January first of 2001.

    And he called me. and he wanted to know why I run a credit card overlimit because I had been raised better than that. And you know, what was I thinking?

    And I said, I didn't do it. What are you talking about?

    And he said, Yes, you did. I have the credit card statement in my hand.

    And I said, what credit card statement is it? And he told me. and I said, well, dad, that was one of the credit cards that was taken out in my name as part of the identity theft. What was mom doing with that?

    He said, well, I don't know, but it's in here in a file folder with your birth certificate and my blood ran cold. Then I knew right then. That mom had been the identity theft offender all along. Because there's no reason for my birth certificate and a credit card statement to be in a file folder together unless you are using that birth certificate to try and demonstrate that I was under the age of 18 when the credit card was established, or you were trying to prove that the credit card was indeed, you know, mine, which it wasn't it?

    And I really think it was it was the latter because. I had my birth certificate, my original birth certificate issued shortly after I was born. I had that. And the birth certificate that was in that file folder was a certified copy issued on June 7th of 2000.

    There's no way I could have obtained that birth certificate because I was taking summer classes in college at that time. And the credit card statement when I looked at it had my mother's employer’s logo on it and I did some research online about that particular credit card, and the relationship between the bank and my mother's employer, and my mom works for a well-known brokerage firm here in the United States, and that credit card was the result of a partnership between the brokerage firm and a bank. And so, what you would do was walk into your local brokerage office and you would fill out a credit card application and if you were approved for the credit card, you would get a credit card with my mother's employer's logo on it. So, the brokerage firm’s logo and the bank financing it was, you know, didn't share the name of my mother's employer at all.

    So, what my mom likely did, was she walked in to work one day, filled out a credit card application using my name, my Social Security number, and got the credit card and likely made a commission off of it as well.  So, there's irony in that, too. And that credit card statement was the beginning of kind of the unraveling of, you know, finding out that mom was responsible for all of this. Because, you know, as the days continued on, dad was finding more and more documents of things that were, unexplainable, unless, you know, mom, was the identity thief.  There were letters from banks in different states for denials of checking accounts in her name and dad's name, and there were collection agency notices.

    And in my grandfather's name, which would be her father-in-law. So, my dad's dad and he never had credit cards, ever. But these were collection agency notices for credit cards in his name. We found employment stubs in her maiden name. I mean, just all sorts of different things that really pointed to the fact that mom had been the identity theft offender all along. And so, her identity was never stolen. So, this whole, I guess for lack of a better way to say it, charade of her identity being stolen along with dad's, that was never true.

    What mom did - because I pulled her credit report. Mom ruined her own credit. And then moved on to dad's, then when she ruined his credit, she moved on to mine. And then when she ruined my credit, she moved on to my grandfather's, and my grandfather she had access to his information because he lived with us for nearly 20 years. And he asked her to do his car insurance renewals for him online. So, she had his Social Security number. She had his date of birth. She had everything she needed to establish credit cards in his name. So, she was the offender all along. She stole dad's identity. My identity, and we didn't know that my grandfather's identity had been stolen until after she had passed away.

    So that that was a revelation that resulted from this discovery process.

    RENATA: I mean, listening to your story is just very impactful, and I relate to it a lot because for me, it was also someone very close to me.

    And I think perhaps is the same for both of us in the sense that when you tell your story to people, sometimes they react in the way that it's almost like an impossible terror story that they're hearing. But the truth is that identity theft is usually, well, you as an academic in the area can confirm if it is usually, but it certainly seems like a crime that is in fact easier to victimise family members or people that are close because it's exactly as you explain they have access to personal information in the way that is harder to have from a stranger, right?

    AXTON: Right. And I, you know, we don't have a good sense of the prevalence of familial identity theft because there are so many cases that go unreported. But it is estimated that up to 30% of identity theft victims have their identities stolen by a family member.

    RENATA: And when you and your father found this out that it had been your mother all along, what steps did you take to start clearing your name? I mean, what was the experience for you as a victim of identity theft trying to prove that, well, you were not the guilty one?

    AXTON: Well, so the cleaning up the identity theft for me actually started back in 2001 when I found out I was a victim of identity theft. And that process involved contacting original creditors to dispute the accounts. And of course, there are lots of people in this world that think that's all you have to do for identity theft.

    You know, you call the creditor, you dispute it. It's removed from your credit report. It's done. That was not my experience at all. And I remember the first creditor I called said that I wasn't a victim of identity theft because someone made two payments on the card before stopping payments and identity thieves don't do that. Well, now we know they do, in order to make the card appear more legitimate, but back then that just wasn't well known. So, I mean, I had a creditor, I had a customer service representative from a large creditor in the United States tell me, no, you're not a victim. So that idea of calling a creditor and filing a dispute and, you know, kind of like the idea of poof, it all goes away. That just didn't work for me. And I also started disputing fraudulent entries on my credit report with the credit reporting agencies and in the United States, a creditor is not required to report to all of the three credit reporting agencies. So, for example, they might report, you might have one creditor that just reports to TransUnion, but not to Equifax or Experian. So, each one of my credit reports was a little bit different in terms of what was being reported on it.

    So, I had to go through all three and dispute all of the fraudulent accounts, including accounts from original creditors and then subsequent collection agency accounts. Sometimes I was successful at that, sometimes I wasn't, because oftentimes the verification process that occurs when you file a dispute is, does the name and Social Security number match? And if the name and Social Security number matches, the debt is considered verified, and it stays on your credit report. Well, every time my name and Social Security number match because, mom knew those things. So that was a frustrating process, and I did file a police report with the State Police thinking that was the best option because at the time I was in college on the other side of the state and my parents were living, I was on the west side of the state they were on the east side of the state, I thought, well, the state police have jurisdiction over the whole state.

    You know, they're the best law enforcement agency to go to, and they gave me a report so I could take that to original creditors. But, you know, that was all the involvement that the State Police had. So, it was really me just fighting the good fight with creditors and collection agencies and the like through this process and that process did not end until 2009, so I was disputing things for eight years and some, and those debts that were, and quote, verified by the name and Social Security number matching most of those just aged off, and those accounts age off seven years after the date of last activity on the account.

    RENATA: It's interesting hearing you explaining because what you fight for and you fought for eight years is to have your credit score clean. So, I know that people listening will probably go straight to the financial aspect of identity theft and true. I mean, that's a big one, and that is there, but some people might think that sure is horrible. You had to fight for this for so long. But at the end of the day is just money. But because I've also been through it, I know that that, that is really just the surface. It goes way beyond that. So, what has been the effects in your life of identity theft and also the effects that you have been observing throughout your research on identity theft victims?

    AXTON: To the effects on my life, of course there's the financial, but there are emotional and physical and relational consequences as well. And this is something that I found in my research to date. The emotional consequences of identity theft, victimization by a family member can actually outweigh the financial consequences because there are feelings of betrayal, there are feelings of loss of, you know, relationships, perhaps with that family member who committed the identity theft, maybe other family members who side with that offender, family member, you know, maybe there are some maybe there's some loss of relationships there between the victim and other family members who support the offender, and they may support the offender because they don't believe the offender could do such a thing when you know when they really did.

    And that's something I've encountered in my life. No, no, your mother never would have done those things. Well, yeah, and I have the paperwork to prove it. But yeah, and physical effects, I think all of the physical effects can really fall under the umbrella of stress, such as headaches and insomnia and stomach aches and muscle aches, high blood pressure. Those are all effects, physical effects of identity theft that I and others have found in research. But I really think all of the physical consequences really fall under the umbrella of physical manifestations of the emotional stress that victims often undergo and then relationally, identity, identity theft victimization by a family member can really affect your sense of trust. And that sense of trust can be disrupted between the victim and, of course, the offender, the victim may not trust other family members, and they may not trust institutions like financial institutions.

    I'm thinking of one research participant in particular and one of my studies who had a really difficult time providing personal information to banks and creditors. Even though that victim had initiated the contact because the victim, you know, they wanted a mortgage loan. And in order to obtain a mortgage loan, you have to provide personal information to the bank in order, in order to start that process. And the victim just had a really terrible time sharing that personal information, even though they were the ones who initiated the contact with the bank because a bank had in their mind allowed the identity theft to occur earlier in their life. So, lots of victims don't trust financial institutions. They may not trust government institutions if their identity was used to obtain government benefits.

    RENATA:  Yeah, I think that for me, one of the biggest effects in that is to this day is the feeling of lacking control over your identity because your name in your image and what you do with it, it's probably one of the things that most people feel like they can control in their lives. And to start my life already with what in Brazil, where I'm from, they call a dirty name.

    So, you have a dirty name because you have debt. So, I started my life hearing that my name was already dirty. So, I just always have this daunting feeling that no matter what I do, even if I do everything right, somehow out of nowhere, I will be implicated into something.

    And I think you also mentioned in the passage of your book that when you finish your PhD, you felt like a fraud like you didn't deserve that something that you had worked on for so long.

    AXTON: I had just finished my PhD in my dissertation, focused on child identity theft victimization. And, you know, after learning that my mom was the offender all along and that this has been going on in my life for 20 years and the offender had watched me work on my research. I felt like an idiot. I mean, it's like, how did I not see this happening? How did I not see the fact that I was around the offender pretty much all the time? And, you know, the thought that crossed my mind like, gee, maybe take that PhD away because I was too dumb to see that I was being victimized by my own mother. But then I thought, well, maybe there's something to be learned from that, you know, maybe there's something to be learned from the fact that I was so blind to it, even though I spent so many years in graduate school studying it. Maybe, you know, maybe there's something that can be learned from that to help other victims and also to help increase the understanding of identity theft perpetrated by family members.

    RENATA:  I think is amazing there to turn this pain into service. And now your career is very focused on helping other victims of identity theft. And I think it's just one of those things that you're passionate about it because you've been through it. I also chose my career because of my experience, and I know that sometimes is not easy is almost like reliving it or digging deeper into a painful reality, however, is just that feeling that I need to do something because things need to change. They need to get better. And some people may ask, Well, I know that they do ask, but you were a child.  surely people in the financial or judicial system can see that right? Well, they should, but is simply not the reality. So Axton based on your experience, your research, your work, what would you change in the system to better support victims of identity theft?

    AXTON: Well, I think one thing that can be changed, I think it can be changed fairly easily is that there needs to be a requirement for creditors to conduct age verification. Now there are creditors who do a good job of verifying an applicant's age. And so, you know, not all creditors, you know, are weak in this respect, but there are creditors who don't do a good job of verifying an applicant's age and if creditors were mandated to do a better job of that on a consistent basis I do think that has the potential to cut down on child identity theft not just perpetrated by family members, but perpetrated by strangers as well, because if creditors had to take the additional time to verify an applicant's age and that applicant was under the age of 18, then you know, the automatic response would be to not issue that line of credit to, you know, to that applicant. Unfortunately, still today, you know, and I've been, you know, living with identity theft either personally or professionally for almost 30 years. We still don't have that.

    RENATA: Absolutely. And you know, perhaps you'll reach some change agents with our chat today accident. Axton, as a victim myself, I can only thank you for the incredible work that you do in this area in representing identity theft victims and in bringing awareness to this type of crime. So thank you for your time and thank you for sharing your story with us today.

    AXTON: Oh, well, thank you for having me.