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 days 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.”
Pam suggested the thief might steal her, too, and soon Betz-Hamilton was spending less and less time outside.
“My world was collapsing, getting smaller all the time. I was scared and deeply lonely. I was exhausted.”
She began having panic attacks at school. At home money was so tight that at times the only items in the cupboard were bags of dried beans, cans of mixed nuts and flour.
“Under no circumstances was I to speak about identity theft or about what was really going on behind the scenes,” she writes.
“The less people know about us, the better,” her mother always said.
One spring evening Betz-Hamilton announced to her father: “One day, I am going to figure out who is doing this to us, and we won’t have to live like this anymore.”
She enrolled in Purdue a semester early, where she found a cheap apartment off-campus.
‘One day, I am going to figure out who is doing this to us, and we won’t have to live like this anymore’
A few days after she moved in, she got a letter from the utility company telling her that she needed to put down a deposit of $100 because of her credit score.
Betz-Hamilton ordered her own credit report and discovered she had an abysmal credit rating of 380 and pages of fraudulent credit-card charges and collection-agency entries in her name. The first credit card was opened when she was 11 years old.
She called her mom, distraught.
“Mom, who would do this to me?” she sobbed. “And why?”
“No one is doing anything to you, Axton,” Pam replied. “They just got your information and used it. It’s not a personal attack.”
After graduating in three short years, Betz-Hamilton earned a master’s in consumer sciences and retailing, and then a Ph.D. in human development and family studies. Her dissertation studied the impact identity theft had on children.
“Like a prisoner who earns a law degree from behind bars, I [studied] identity theft while trying to save myself from its effects. If I couldn’t get away from it, I would run toward it. Perhaps I would find the perpetrator somewhere along the way.”
In August 2012, when Betz-Hamilton was 30, her mom told her she had found a giant lump under her arm and was worried about her health.
A few days later she won her award, and then days after that her mom’s diagnosis came — leukemia, and the illness was unrelenting.
Six months later, Pam was dead.
Two weeks after her death, Betz-Hamilton got the call from her dad.
He had found the credit-card statement in Betz-Hamilton’s name from 2001 while cleaning out Pam’s paperwork at the house.
“What the hell were you thinking, running up a credit card over the limit back in 2001?” he asked.
Betz-Hamilton was stunned. The fact that this paperwork was in her name and in her own home led her to a startling realization.
“My blood ran cold,” Betz-Hamilton writes. “It was as if my body understood something that my mind hadn’t yet grasped.”
‘There isn’t a hint of any guilt on her face…to lie seamlessly for so many years and be such a master manipulator, that’s the only thing I can think of’
She rushed back to her family’s property and soon was studying piles of paperwork her mother had hidden over the years. Seeing the evidence confirmed what her instincts had told her when she first got the call from her father.
“Dad,” she told him. “Mom did this.”
Over the next five years, Betz-Hamilton found paperwork hidden in outbuildings on the farm, stuck in the bottom of purses, in old bags, in between the pages of books.
She found pay stubs in her mom’s maiden name, life-insurance policies that she had taken out but never paid the premium on, rejection letters for a bank account in Wisconsin.
She found piles of cheap costume jewelry throughout the house and over 40 pairs of cheap high-heeled shoes under the bed.
But the strangest revelations came from her mom’s Facebook messages.
In them, she realized her mom was creating a series of new identities. She told people from high school that she didn’t have a child, that she had never married.
She told friends in her their hometown that her husband had abused her and that they had divorced. She was apparently having an affair with another man. Betz-Hamilton found a receipt for a $400 cubic zirconia engagement ring that her mother told friends on Facebook he had bought for her but had apparently bought herself.
Worst of all, she found that while her father had been giving her mother $11,000 a semester for her schooling, Pam had been pocketing most of it, leaving her with over $100,000 in school loans to pay.
In the end, Betz-Hamilton found that her mom had defrauded her father, herself and her father’s father to the tune of $500,000, but it’s still not clear what she spent it on.
“That’s what’s so weird,” she says. “The majority of it just vanished into thin air.”
Betz-Hamilton believes that her mother probably was a psychopath.
She points to the photo of her mother, smiling widely next to her on the day she won her award, as evidence.
“There isn’t a hint of any guilt on her face…and she had to have known what we were going to find out,” Betz-Hamilton tells The Post. “To lie seamlessly for so many years and be such a master manipulator, that’s the only thing I can think of.”
Her father, stunned by the news, at first didn’t believe it. For years, he had blindly handed cash over to Pam, assuming she was paying the family’s bills. But as his daughter’s investigation wore on, he couldn’t deny the mounting proof. At 65, he now looks at his marriage to Pam as a closed chapter, says his daughter. He still works as a produce manager, has liens on his vehicles because Pam didn’t pay taxes for years, his retirement fund is slashed and his credit is terrible. But he also has a long-term girlfriend and is happier than he’s ever been, Betz-Hamilton says.
Meanwhile, Betz-Hamilton, now 37, has restored her credit and she keeps her mother’s ashes on her mantelpiece, just as she wished. But, next to the urn, she has placed a copy of her book.
Exposing her mom, piecing her life together, and becoming a success makes her feel good. And she wants to make sure her mom knows it.
“I can see now that treating my mother’s unthinkable sins as if I were a CSI technician and not her only child might have been a bit of deflection on my part. Academia had long been my therapy,” she writes.
“But I can forgive myself for that,” she adds. “Knowledge, I’ve found, will not betray you the way people will.”