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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your real-world money questions.
This week’s episode is focused on Axton Betz-Hamilton, author of “The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity.” In addition to talking about her book, Betz-Hamilton chats with personal finance Nerd Kim Palmer about how people can keep themselves safe and recover if they do become the victim of identity theft — even if it’s perpetrated by family members. Betz-Hamilton says an important first step is acknowledging how widespread the problem is and then taking steps to guard your privacy.
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Identity theft — where someone uses another’s personal information for their own gain — is, unfortunately, rampant. According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft has been growing steadily over the last two decades, with over 1.4 million reports in 2021.
However, you can take steps to lower your risk. Some good places to start are: freezing your credit; keeping personal details about yourself private and offline; and being wary of emails and other messages that ask for sensitive data or try to get you to click on a link. It’s also helpful to frequently scan your banking statements, mail and credit reports for any suspicious charges or new accounts.
Identity theft protection services can offer additional assistance. In fact, you may already have access to free protection through your financial institution, employer, credit card issuers, membership organizations — or because a data breach exposed your personal information.
If you do find yourself the victim of identity theft, it’s important to report the crime. The FTC’s reporting portal lays the groundwork to get fraudulent accounts taken off your credit reports and avoid collections. You can also get resources such as a checklist for recovery.
Keep your personal information private. When you share your date of birth, pet names and other personal details online, thieves can use that information to steal your identity. Take care when sharing information about yourself online, including on social media.
Consider placing a credit freeze for yourself and your children. Freezing your credit through the three major credit bureaus (TransUnion, Experian and Equifax) prevents the credit check required for opening most accounts, which hampers fraudsters. When you want to apply for a new line of credit yourself, you’ll have to take the extra step of unfreezing your credit temporarily. Freezing and unfreezing is free.
Be aware of common avenues for identity theft. Phishing attacks — when you receive a fraudulent email or other message that looks like it came from a trusted source such as your bank — are increasingly sophisticated. Be wary of any message requesting information from you. If you are unsure, call the source (such as your bank) directly, or check its main website for information there rather than clicking on a link you were sent.
More about learning about keeping your money safe on NerdWallet:
Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast. I'm Sean Pyles. We have a special episode in store for you today. Regular Smart Money guest and personal finance Nerd Kim Palmer is kicking off the next episode in our book club series. Kim, who are you talking with this episode?
Kim Palmer: I am talking with Axton Betz-Hamilton. She is the author of “The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity.” Her book is really about how much identity theft can upend your life, especially when it's perpetrated by someone who's close to you. And we're going to talk about her experience growing up as the victim of identity theft and how people who have that experience can really recover from it.
Sean Pyles: All right. Well, I will let you take things from here.
Kim Palmer: Thank you. Axton, welcome to Smart Money.
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
Kim Palmer: In your book, you share how your own mother stole your identity when you were a child, ultimately robbing you and your dad of hundreds of thousands of dollars, ruining your credit, your sense of trust in the world. And you share how you discovered this fraud really to your shock after your mom died and the trauma that you experienced during the years that the theft was being perpetuated.
The title of your book, I think really alludes to the fact that you basically grew up living in secrecy. You had to keep the curtains drawn, you were told not to answer the door and your parents basically told you that other people, strangers, had stolen their identities, which is why your utilities would be shut off or money would go missing. As a child, what did you make of all of that?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: So one of the things that my parents, particularly my mom, would say is she would name potential suspects of people we knew — so, extended family members, friends of the family, neighbors, et cetera — and give reasons which seemed rational as to why they might be behind the identity theft. So not only were strangers implicated, particularly in the beginning, but as time went on, more and more individuals that we had been close to, she implicated.
And as a result of that, we isolated ourselves. So we stopped talking with extended relatives. We stopped talking with friends of the family. And we isolated ourselves as a misguided form of protection, because one of the things that my mom was concerned about was tipping off the identity thief. We don't want to say anything that might give them additional information or let them know that we know that our identities have been stolen.
And back at that time, the story I had been told was that both of my parents' identities had been stolen, and of course, that's not true. Mom ruined her credit, moved on to my father's, then moved on to mine, and then moved on to my grandfather's.
Kim Palmer: I mean, that sounds like such a hard way to grow up and challenging in so many ways. In your research, have you found that kind of secrecy to be a common hallmark when parents are doing this kind of thing to their children?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Yes. Absolutely. So there are patterns of secrecy in families in which a parent steals their child's identity that go beyond financial secrecy. So there are patterns of secrecy about relationships, and I'm thinking of extramarital affairs and things of that nature. There are just patterns of secrecy really about everything in families where familial identity theft occurs.
Kim Palmer: That sounds so hard. And later, of course, you learn that your mother was responsible, and I believe you calculated that she stole half a million dollars from your family. Can you describe the financial impact that it had on you?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: So all in all, Dad and I calculated that between half a million and $600,000 were either missing or misappropriated. One result is that I graduated with my bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. combined with $100,000 in student loan debt. And of course, some of that I incurred in graduate school. But when I was going through my undergraduate program, my mom would give me $3,000 a semester to cover my tuition and would tell me, "You have to take out student loans for your housing because we can't afford that." And so I did, and one of the things she said was, "Don't talk to your dad about it. He's embarrassed that we can't afford to fully pay for your college."
Then after she passed away, Dad and I were talking about student loan debt because Mom had student loan debt. She passed away when she was working on her doctorate. She was talking about her student loan debt, and she had an enormous amount of student loan debt that Dad and I didn't know that she had incurred. And then I mentioned my student loan debt and Dad said, "Well, that's impossible. You can't have that much student loan debt. We paid for your college." And I said to Dad, "Wait a minute. How much were you giving Mom a semester?" And it was $11,000. So that $8,000 a semester for my housing that Mom said they couldn't afford, he was giving it to Mom and I don't know where it went.
Kim Palmer: Wow. You talk about your dad a lot in the book. I almost feel like I know him. I mean, all of this had such a big impact on him as well. How is he doing now?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Well, so one of the ways in which he recovered from this, and it sounds a little out there, but I think all Harley-Davidson riders will appreciate this: He was able to purchase a Harley-Davidson motorcycle shortly after my mom passed away. And that opportunity presented itself when a customer of his was diagnosed with terminal cancer and this customer knew what my mom had done, and that my dad had always wanted a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And he had one, and he offered it to my dad for a more than reasonable price, and it just so happened to be the amount that was in a checking account that was in my mom's name that we found. And I said, "Dad, this is like divine intervention. You have to do this." And of course, Dad was like, "I don't know that’s a responsible thing to do. I shouldn't do it," blah, blah, blah, blah.
I talked him into it. I didn't have to talk him into it very hard. He wanted the bike. And getting on that bike and riding when — let's say Dad would get mail addressed to Mom's name or something was going on that triggered memories about Mom, or there was something financial that cropped up that he had to deal with shortly after she passed away that was stressful — to deal with that stress, he got on the bike. And he started going to bike rallies and charity bike rides and things of that nature and meeting people through that, that just knew him, that didn't know him and Mom. And I think that was really important for him to really reestablish who he was as a person and what he really wanted out of life.
Kim Palmer: Yeah. That sounds really healing. What about you? How did you recover and rebuild your own life financially and otherwise?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Sure. So the rebuilding of my credit started when I was 19. That was actually when I discovered I was a victim of identity theft. And that began when I applied for electric service at my first apartment in college and they sent me a letter to say they needed a $100 security deposit due to my poor credit score. And I thought it was because I didn't have one, and I ordered a copy of my credit report, and my credit report was 10 pages long, full of fraudulent credit card entries and associated collection agency entries that dated back to the time that my parents' identities were stolen.
So in the process of trying to restore my credit — it was a really long process. And what I did was I disputed fraudulent accounts, but I was concerned that even if I were able to remove all of the fraudulent accounts from my credit report, I would have a credit score of essentially nothing because I had no credit. I mean, I had outstanding student loan debt that wasn't in repayment. That was it.
And I started trying to build good credit while removing the items that were contributing to a negative credit score. So through that process, I paid some incredibly high interest rates for things that unfortunately weren't my fault in the sense that I shouldn't have had to pay that high of an interest rate. For example, my first car loan on a 5-year-old used car — which by the way, my dad's still driving — the interest rate on that was 18.23%, and that was with my mom as a co-signer. My first credit card, the APR on that was 29.99% and it had a $300 annual limit and a $69 annual fee, which they made me pay before they would actually send me the credit card. But through that process and paying those bills on time every month, it really helped me rebuild my credit even while I was struggling to get some of those fraudulent accounts off.
Kim Palmer: I think this brings us to what I consider to be such a powerful moment in your book, when you do discover the depth of the identity theft. Could you read for us that part, the prologue?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Sure. "It had been a long day at school and the roots of a headache had planted themselves near the outer corners of my eyes. There were hours of homework in my immediate future, but as I walked through the parking lot in my building, I wistfully considered a nap. The manila envelope I found folded over and jammed in my mailbox was the last thing I wanted to deal with. With a groan of resignation, I yanked it from the box. It was a lot bigger than I had expected a credit report to be. Must come with a lot of instructions, I thought.
"Most of me wanted to drop it by the front door and forget about it for a while, but I leaned against the arm of my hand-me-down green floral print couch with my legs crossed and tore it open instead. There have been a few moments in my life when reality has skipped in front of me like a broken television, and I remember this one in slow motion. Sliding my finger under the thick flap of that envelope, feeling the adhesive give way and the paper tear in jagged intervals.
"Those were the last indelible sensations of an existence I understood. And then, as sure as the sharp edges of paper in my hands, another existence took its place, a new life, a different identity. I did not find any instructions inside the envelope. Instead, I found the report, with the bulk of a term paper, full of fraudulent credit card charges and collection agency entries in my name. The first line of credit had been opened in 1993 when I was 11. That was the year my parents' identities had been stolen.
"My credit score was 380. For a merciful second, I thought maybe that was good. After all, 100 is perfect. It always had been in school anyway. Then I saw the corresponding key. My score of 380 placed me in the second percentile of all scores in the United States, about as low as it gets. As my body folded over the arm of the couch, my mind struggled to make sense of these bizarre numbers. Surely they'll know I was just a kid. I couldn't have done this. I felt the sting of tears on my cheeks. Who would do this to me?"
Kim Palmer: That's so powerful to read. Thank you so much for reading that.
One shocking thing that I discovered from your book is just that it's not all that uncommon for people to have loved ones commit this kind of fraud. Do you think that makes it harder to recover from than being the victim of a fraud by strangers?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: From an emotional perspective, absolutely, because when you know the offender, when they're a family member, there was a relationship there before the identity theft, and it could have been a close relationship. And those feelings of betrayal and anger can really damage that relationship or destroy it.
In fact, identity theft, based on some of the research that I have done, really has the potential to destroy family relationships when a family member is the offender. It's also difficult to recover financially when a family member is the offender because oftentimes, victims won't report because they don't want to get their loved one in trouble. Maybe they're also financially dependent on the offender, especially in the case of a college student who still needs money from Mom or Dad to pay for school and pay for living expenses. Or in the case of an older adult, if let's say an adult child steals their older adult parent's identity, that older adult may be dependent on the adult child for caregiving and the ability to live at least semi-independently, and they don't want to lose that, so they don't report.
Kim Palmer: It's so complicated. If someone does discover they are a victim of identity theft, where should they start? I know one aspect you write about is going to the police, and it sounds like that really wasn't that helpful. So where do you start?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: For me, going to the police wasn't helpful because I talk about in the book how I was hoping for something with lights, sirens and a hail of gunfire if necessary as a response. Because I was 19, and this has been going on in my family since I was 11. At that point, I was thinking, “Enough is enough, and surely the state police will do something because they have jurisdiction over the whole state, and so they can cover my parents' case and my case and it'll all be good, and we'll finally put this to rest.”
And they did take a report, which sometimes victims struggle with getting law enforcement to take a report because sometimes they see it as a civil matter and not a criminal matter. But that report can really be a key document that you'll need simply to supply to creditors as evidence that you are indeed an identity theft victim because unfortunately, there are people out there who will contact creditors and say, "I've been a victim of identity theft, this account is not mine," when it really is.
So to weed out the people who are falsely claiming that they've been victims, creditors will often require some sort of evidence that you are a victim of identity theft, and that's usually a police report.
Another thing that victims can do today that was not available back when I was 19 and starting to go through this process is that they can freeze their credit. In fact, anyone today can freeze their credit. And what that means is that once you freeze your credit by contacting the three credit reporting agencies and requesting a freeze, no one can open new accounts in your name, including you, unless you temporarily lift the freeze, and then put it back on. Let's say you want to apply for a new credit card and you have a credit freeze in effect: You have to temporarily lift the freeze by contacting the credit reporting agencies, and then have it put back on when you're done obtaining that new credit card. So the credit freezes are a nice tool to stop additional new accounts from being created in your name. It doesn't do anything to stop existing account fraud.
Kim Palmer: Is that something that you would recommend parents do for their children as well? Because, of course, children just seem so vulnerable to this.
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Right. You can freeze your child's credit as a parent. The challenge to me, though, with my life experience with that ability of parents being able to freeze their credit, is if a parent wants to steal their child's identity, they're not going to freeze their credit.
But if you are a parent with good intentions and you want to protect your child from identity theft, absolutely, I recommend that you freeze your child's credit. Unfortunately, had credit freezes for children been available when I was a child, my mother wouldn't have put a freeze on my credit report. There's no way because she was using my credit.
Kim Palmer: Right. Of course. Are there other steps you take today to keep your credit safe going forward that maybe other people aren't aware of?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: One thing that I don't do, that I notice a lot of people do, is these peer-to-peer payment apps like PayPal and Venmo. Those were initially created with the idea that you will engage in financial transactions with a trusted individual. Unfortunately, if you have information stolen or money stolen through those, there's not a lot of recourse because they're not as protected as credit cards or debit cards. So I don't use those. I don't trust them. And I see people using them to pay for things on Facebook Marketplace, and it makes me shudder a little bit just because of the lack of protections there.
Other things I do, I don't check my bank accounts on public Wi-Fi. I don't click on links in emails even if it looks like a legitimate email. I will go to the website in a separate browser and see the information myself, because there are really sophisticated phishing emails out there that are designed to capture your personal information. And these fraudsters are pretty slick in making fraudulent emails look like legitimate emails, even let's say using your bank account or your bank's logo in the email and having your bank's email in the “from” line in the email. So I never click on links in emails, especially when it comes to financial information, because you don't know who's on the other end of that email once you reply to it or click on the link.
Kim Palmer: Yeah. Those are a good tips, for sure. And I know you're a big fan of cash, right? You feel safest using cash?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Oh, I do. For example, I travel a lot by car. I live in the middle of the country. That's just what you do. You need a car. Where I live, if you want to travel to Target, you get in the car and you drive an hour.
And I am always concerned about what happens if the credit card readers at a gas station aren't working. Or what if the credit card readers go down at Target? So I have cash as a protection, just as an additional way to pay for something.
Kim Palmer: Do you think that even today — I mean, I know you talked about the peer-to-peer apps, but what about with other financial systems? If you need to apply for a mortgage or a car loan or anything, any kind of financial product, do you approach that differently today because of your experience? Are you more hesitant about applying for loans or maybe try to keep things more private?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: This is going to make me sound a little old school, but we can apply for credit cards and car loans and mortgages online now, and we've been able to do that for a while. I still want a relationship with somebody. I want to go into my local bank and sit down and have a conversation with a loan officer and let them get to know me, let me get to know them, build a little bit of trust there, and then apply for the loan. I need that trusting relationship. I can't do it online. I need to see the person who I'm giving the application to and have a sense of trust with them.
Kim Palmer: That makes a lot of sense. Also, I mean, so much of our information is online, especially if you share things on social media. Do you think that makes it easier for people — strangers or people we know — to commit these kinds of crimes?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Oh, absolutely. So one thing I talk about a lot with my students when talking about identity theft is one of the key pieces of information that an identity thief needs to steal your identity is your birthdate, and all the people who are putting their birthdate on Facebook, it's out there. And even if you trust the people on your friends list, do you really trust them? That's just a piece of information that doesn't need to be on Facebook, because people can use that to steal your identity.
I also see a lot of women on Facebook who use their maiden name because they're trying to reconnect with their high school classmates. Your mother's maiden name is one of the pieces of information that an identity thief needs, oftentimes, to steal your identity. So by putting your maiden name, let's say on Facebook, that's a piece of information that an identity thief would need to steal your child's identity. So I don't recommend doing that either. Take your maiden name off Facebook. I think it's too risky, particularly if you have kids.
Kim Palmer: Yeah. That's a really good tip, for sure. I was also really surprised to learn in your book just how recently identity theft became a federal crime, which was in 1998. Do you think the fact that it is a federal crime now makes it easier for victims?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: It does. So it was a crime against consumers starting in 1998. Before that, the creditors were the victims, because in the eyes of the law, the creditors were the ones who lost money, not the people. And that all changed in 1998. And as a result of that, more resources were created and devoted to helping victims.
So there's the Federal Trade Commission site, identitytheft.gov. You can go there and report identity theft in their Consumer Sentinel database, which is a database that's shared with multiple law enforcement agencies because oftentimes identity theft will cross jurisdictional boundaries. And so that's a clearinghouse of identity theft reports where you can add your identity theft report as well.
They have a lot of educational resources out there. The Identity Theft Resource Center, which is a nonprofit, I believe they came into existence in 1999, and they provide education and different resources. They also have a call center where victims can call and get assistance with their identity theft situation. So because of that law that was passed in 1998, we saw resources immediately start to be devoted towards individual victims. Unfortunately, thieves have evolved and changed their tactics over time at a much faster rate than what laws can keep up with.
Kim Palmer: Well, those are great resources. Thank you for sharing those.
So I wanted to ask you, I know your dad has his Harley, but did you find something like that to help you recover and bring you joy again?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Honestly, for me, and I'm going to sound like an academic geek when I say this, but it was really my job, that academic training, and really funneling my energies into that and switching my focus a little bit away from child identity theft and more towards familial identity theft. Because I started my career focused on child identity theft because I was a child identity theft victim. But really, I was a familial identity theft victim.
So once I found that out, I redirected my research focus a little bit. And what helps me is learning more about identity theft, understanding it through my research, and then helping others through disseminating that research through publications and presentations, and then of course, my book, and speaking about my book, and just really getting the word out and helping people who are struggling with this issue.
Kim Palmer: Absolutely. I mean, I think also you must hear from people. It must help just to know that they're not alone and helping to reduce any shame or embarrassment they feel.
Axton Betz-Hamilton: Right. I've heard from victims literally all over the world, and I hear that repeatedly: "Oh. I didn't know anyone else was going through this."
Nobody talks about this. Why don't we talk about this more as a society? And hopefully my research and my book are starting those conversations where they need to be started.
Kim Palmer: Yes. Well, thank you so much for talking about it, for writing about it. Thank you for being on our podcast. Do you have any final thoughts that you want to share with our listeners?
Axton Betz-Hamilton: One thing that I hope folks take away from this podcast and from the book is back to my earlier point about we need to talk more about familial identity theft. So if you are a victim of familial identity theft, please reach out. You're welcome to reach out to me, the Federal Trade Commission, the Identity Theft Resource Center, your local law enforcement.
Let's have these conversations. Let's empower victims to help themselves. So I hope folks walk away feeling empowered and in a position either to help themselves or help others.
Kim Palmer: Thank you so much, Axton.
That is all we have for this 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. And remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.
And here's our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.
This episode was produced by me, Kim Palmer, and Sean Pyles. We had editing help from Liz Weston. Kaely Monahan mixed our audio. And a big thank you to the folks on the NerdWallet copy desk for all of their help.
And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.