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Criminal: To Catch An Identity Thief

A drawing of falling cash.
Julienne Alexander
Axton Betz-Hamilton didn't learn her identity had been stolen by a trusted loved one until they died.

Axton Betz-Hamilton is an expert on identity theft. The issue hits close to home because her own identity was stolen when she was just a child. In this week's Criminal podcast, host Phoebe Judge tells the story of Betz-Hamilton's crusade against identity theft and the discovery of her own perpetrator. Betz-Hamilton grew up an only child on a farm in Indiana. One day, mail began to disappear from the mailbox. This continued even after the family got a post office box.

Betz-Hamilton never made much of it, until she started college and tried to set up the electricity at her new apartment. The power company demanded an extra fee because of her terrible credit. This was a surprise, since Betz-Hamilton said she'd never borrowed anything but her student loans.

Her credit report came from the credit agency in a mysteriously thick envelope. At the top of the 10-page report, Betz-Hamilton found that her credit score was 380.

"There was a bell curve underneath where it says 'your credit score is 380," she recalled. "And that bell curve showed that my credit score was in the second percentile of all credit scores in the nation."

Betz-Hamilton went to the police, but they didn't do much. So she took up the issue as her life's work. Amid her own investigations, identity theft from children became the focus of her master's degree as well as her Ph.D.

"When you have poor credit and you are interacting with the financial industry in any capacity, whether it's to buy a car, obtain a loan on a home, etc., you are looked at like you are some sort of deadbeat," she said.

After her mother died, Betz-Hamilton's father confronted her about a credit card bill. After she insisted the card had been taken out by the identity thief, her father confided that he had found the statement in her mother's files, along with Betz-Hamilton's birth certificate.

That's when it all clicked. Betz-Hamilton's mother had been an accountant, understood how to manipulate and hide money. And while Betz-Hamilton's mother had bad credit, her identity had never been stolen. After some digging, it became clear that her mother had stolen her father and grandfather's identities, too. And she had managed to racked up half a million dollars in debt.

Even on her hospice death bed, Betz-Hamilton's mother never breathed a word of her betrayal, she said.

"Because of this experience, Dad I were definitely grieving those first to weeks until we discovered all of this. The grieving process stopped and has never restarted, and it's been over three years," Betz-Hamilton said. "The best way I can explain it is, how can you grieve for someone that you obviously didn't know?"

You can hear much more more about Betz-Hamilton's discovery of her identity thief and the fallout of her investigation into her mother's double-life on this week's Criminal podcast.


Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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