When Axton Betz-Hamilton set up her first utility bill at college, she soon realized something was very, very wrong.
It turned out she’d been a victim of identity theft—and it had destroyed her credit rating.
In 2001, when she was a 19-year-old student, Betz-Hamilton’s new utility provider demanded a $100 security deposit to turn on her service, citing her credit score.
“I thought it was because I didn’t have enough credit,” she told Fortune. But when a copy of her credit report turned up in her mailbox six weeks later, she learned the opposite was true.
“At first, I thought credit reports must come with a lot of instructions, because my credit report should not have been thick. It should have been half a page—name, address, and a couple of student loans. I opened it and realized very quickly that credit reports do not come with a lot of instructions, but that mine was 10 pages long and full of fraudulent credit card entries.”
Some of those entries dated back to 1993, when she was 11. When she disputed the file with credit bureaus, parts were removed simply because certain creditors had gone out of business. Others, however, didn’t get scrubbed from her history until they aged off—which typically takes around seven years.
For most people, the idea of identity theft conjures images of anonymous, shady hackers. But for many victims—including Betz-Hamilton—the perpetrator is much closer to home.
In Betz-Hamilton’s case, it was her mother.
A widespread problem
Betz-Hamilton fell victim to child identity theft in the 1990s—but the crime is still widespread today.
A landmark 2011 study by Carnegie Mellon CyLab found that children are uniquely vulnerable to identity theft.
In their analysis of more than 40,000 American children, researchers at the university found that 10% had someone else using their Social Security number. That meant kids were 51 times more likely to fall victim to identity theft than adults.
Children’s identities were being used to buy homes and cars, open credit card accounts and secure employment, the report’s authors said, with the youngest victim they discovered in their analysis being just five months old.
Meanwhile, a 2021 study by Javelin Strategy found that one in 50 U.S. children fall victim to identity theft every year—with 73% of victims being targeted by someone they know personally.
Hari Ravichandran, CEO and founder of digital security firm Aura, told Fortune that the perpetrator in a child identity theft case is “very often” related to the victim.
“A lot of the time, it involves families that are in dire straits, where they’re facing something like a serious economic crunch or addiction issues,” he said. “When kids are born, they get a social security number that generally never gets used until they’re about 17 or 18—so there’s this large window of time where there’s a clean social security number available.”
‘It’s mom, really?’
It was only after her mother passed away in 2013 that Betz-Hamilton finally realized who was behind the fraud that landed her in financial difficulty. A couple weeks after her mom’s death, she got a life-changing call from her dad.
“He was going through [my mom’s old things] and pulled out a credit card statement in my name,” she said. “He was ready to tear into me—he was yelling at me for taking a credit card over its limit back in 2001.”
As the conversation progressed, Betz-Hamilton realized that the credit card in question was one of the debts that had been fraudulently taken out in her name. Further discoveries made among her mom’s files proved her mom had been the perpetrator of all of it—and revealed that she was not only guilty of her daughter’s identity theft, but of fraud committed in Betz-Hamilton’s dad and grandfather’s names.
“That moment of discovery, it was like experiencing two extreme emotions,” Betz-Hamilton told Fortune. “As someone who’d been living with identity theft for 20 years and not knowing who was responsible, it was like, wow, we figured out who did it finally, and we don’t have to live like this anymore—but then it’s like: it’s mom, really? It’s mom.”
The fraud her mom had committed dragged Betz-Hamilton’s credit score down to 380 before she’d even had a chance to build any credit for herself.
In the U.S., FICO Scores—the most commonly used credit scores—sit between 300 and 850, with a rating of 700 or above generally deemed “good” by lenders. According to Experian, the average American had a FICO Score of 714 last year.
Credit scores are used by lenders to determine whether someone is likely to pay them back, and are therefore hugely significant when it comes to taking out debt like loans and credit cards. Even landlords sometimes ask to see potential tenants’ credit scores before agreeing to rent them an apartment, and having a poor rating—that is, one below around 600—could make things difficult for would-be renters.
Betz-Hamilton’s damaged credit report landed her in the second percentile of all credit scores in the U.S. back in 2001. It took her a lot of time and money to remedy the situation, she told Fortune.
“I started by getting a credit card from a subprime lender that had an exorbitant interest rate…[and] it had a $300 limit.,” she said. “My first car loan on a five-year-old used car had APR 18.23% interest—that’s like putting a used car on a credit card.”
By the time her mom passed away, Betz-Hamilton’s credit report had been cleared of fraudulent entries. But she said her mother had “absolutely” been aware of just how financially damaging the identity theft had been.
“I’m the one who told her how bad it was,” Betz-Hamilton explained. “She was the first person I called for help because she worked in financial services. She was the financial expert in the family.”
Wayne R. Cohen, founder and managing partner of Washington, D.C.-based law firm Cohen & Cohen, told Fortune the “chief motivation” behind the crime was when a parent has bad credit and is not able to make a debt-based purchase.
“In most states this is a crime—fraud, identify theft, and misappropriation of funds are all possible charges a prosecutor could bring,” he said.
When it comes to what motivated Betz-Hamilton’s mom to commit her crimes, Betz-Hamilton can never know for sure as she never got the chance to confront her. But through conversations with people who knew her mom and her own reflections, she has a few ideas.
“My grandmother was very similar, apparently, to my mom, in that she would compulsively spend,” she said. “That spending [came down to a need to] have the nicest things and impress other people with their perception of your wealth, based on the kind of clothes you have the kind of car you drive.”
‘You trust your parents’
A number of people who were victimized by their parents have shared their stories on social media.
“First credit report I pulled at 18 had a gas bill from 1999. I was born in 89,” one person said in a post on X. “Was very thankful they allowed me to dispute simply using my birth certificate instead of doing a police report against my own family. But that was probably because I was trying to get a security clearance and the powers that be rushed things.”
“My mom did this, whole adult life [I’ve] been paying off debt that wasn’t even mine,” another said, while another said it had taken her until her thirties to stabilize her credit score after her parents used her details.
Fortune was not able to independently verify those anecdotes.
My husband is a supervisor in debt collection for a bank. The number of times I’ve heard of parents and grandparents doing this to their (grand-) children absolutely blows my mind, infuriates me, and makes me wonder why there’s so little protection against it.
— Dr. Julia Marin Hellwege (@JuliaHellwege) September 12, 2023
One Seattle-based woman, who is now 27, became a victim of family identity theft at a young age. She spoke to Fortune anonymously about her own experience.
When she was a junior at the University of Washington, her mother encouraged her to apply for her first credit card.
“You trust your parents, especially your mom—you think they’re there to protect you,” she told Fortune. “I thought, sure, you’re obviously more knowledgeable about credit than me. But I think she then felt like, ‘oh, that was really easy.’”
Her mom convinced her to open up a second credit card with a higher spending limit, which she promised to keep safe for her. But over time, she realized debts were being racked up on the cards that weren’t being paid off when they should have been.
She said she was afraid to confront her mother despite feeling scared about her financial situation.
“My mom was one of my sole providers—I thought if I brought this up to her that she’d retaliate and not help me through college, and that this was really going to ruin our relationship,” she explained. “But [when] I checked my credit score, it was pretty bad. [She] totally trashed my credit.”
She said she eventually mustered up the strength to talk to her mom about her use of her credit cards.
“It didn’t go great,” she told Fortune. “I halted my relationship with her for a long time. But it was really hard because you’re not only thinking, ‘oh my gosh, something horrible is happening to me,’ but it’s my mom of all people. Your parents are supposed to protect you, and even though there may have been some good intent behind it, or she had her reasonings, it doesn’t excuse it. That’s not what a parent should be doing to their children.”
People in this position face a unique dilemma: report their parents for committing a crime, or be held responsible for their parent’s fraudulent spending.
In a 2021 article, CyberScout founder and identity theft expert Adam Levin labeled intrafamily fraud an “insidious” crime, but said it was one that could be carried out “with no difficulty at all.”
“As hard as it may be, victims should respond to the crime exactly as they would had it been perpetrated by a stranger,” he advised. “Place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit, file a police report immediately, and dispute all fraudulent accounts and charges. Freeze your credit at the three credit reporting agencies.”
Ultimately, the woman who told Fortune about her mother stealing her identity said felt she had little choice but to report her mother to the authorities.
“The credit bureaus wouldn’t take me seriously unless I filed a police report,” she explained. “I didn’t want to because it was my mom, I didn’t know what they would do [to her]. Ultimately, they didn’t do anything.”
Several years after the identity theft, she is back on speaking terms with her mother. But she says their relationship has been irreparably damaged.
“We didn’t talk for a long time, and I was very hurt. But I wanted to forgive and move on,” she said. “Ultimately, if your family is hurting you, you need to do whatever you can to protect yourself. So, we’re in contact, but I have my own parameters that make me feel comfortable with how much we’re together or how much we talk.”
Ravichandran of the digital security firm Aura—who has a friend whose identity was stolen by a relative when they were younger—argues that authorities should do more to prevent child identity theft.
“What’s never been clear to me is why somebody’s credit should be open, by default, and then you have to [actively] close it, or freeze it or lock it,” Ravichandran told Fortune. “To me, it seems like it ought to be the opposite. And that’s something that regulators and government could get involved with, which is make everybody’s credit and personal info locked by default.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com