I lived with the identity thief who ruined my familyOctober 14, 2019
In the summer of 2012, Axton Betz-Hamilton was given an award for her research on childhood identity theft. As a kid, she and her family had been the victims of an identity thief, and Betz-Hamilton, a professor at Eastern Illinois University, had made a career of trying to find out who was responsible.
That day, as she proudly posed for photos and held up her award, her parents beamed by her side.
A few months later she got a call from her father. He had found an old credit-card statement of hers at the house and was dismayed that his daughter had run up such a huge bill when she was just 18.
Betz-Hamilton’s blood ran cold.
“Set everything aside, Dad,” she said, knowing he had found the vital clue to the culprit.
In “The Less People Know About Us,” (Grand Central Publishing), out Tuesday, Betz-Hamilton recounts the story of her strange childhood on a farm in rural Portland, Ind., and her hunt to find the person who turned their lives into a claustrophobic nightmare where no one was trusted.
When Betz-Hamilton was about 11, her father’s copies of The Brayer — a magazine devoted to donkey raising — stopped arriving despite regular payments. Soon Betz-Hamilton’s pen-pal letters from the 4-H club — her only social lifeline — were cut off, too. Next, the phone bills disappeared.
“It’s definitely Willy’s son,” her mother, Pam, said, referring to a neighbor locked in a long-standing land dispute with the family. “People steal your mail to get your Social Security number or your account information.”
A few weeks later, the phone was shut off.
Her father, John, a hobby farmer who put in long hours as the manager of the produce section at a grocery store, didn’t have time to investigate.
So Pam, a tax preparer, spent hours at the post office and the police department, begging for formal investigations to be launched.
She opened another PO box two towns over in Albany to outwit whoever was stealing the mail. At some point, Pam began referring to what was happening to the family as identity theft.
“Who do they think it is?” Betz-Hamilton asked, wondering what the police had said.
“They don’t know, honey,” Pam said. “Probably someone who doesn’t like us.”
The family started turning inwards. In the eighth grade, “closed curtains became a hard-and-fast rule. I was instructed to never answer the door, even if I knew who it was. Anything and anyone outside those drapes … we could never be sure of. We could only trust one another.
“My dad … entrusted me with keeping the property safe. He started saying things like, ‘If someone crosses the gate, they’re yours. You have to protect the property.’ ”
At 14, she became “hyper-vigilant, always on guard. I heard each passing car, searched the eyes of every strange and familiar face at the store. Paranoia became an obligation, a twisted kind of duty to my family.”