After almost two decades reporting and writing financial stories, I’ve seen my fair share of shocking news and hard interviews on challenging issues. So when someone brings up a potential story idea to me, I often approach investigating an issue from a position of intellectual curiosity, thoughtfulness, and sometimes skepticism.
But last week was one of those times when my breath was taken away as I listened to the story of Axton Betz, 30, who is an assistant professor of Consumer Studies at Eastern Illinois University. Axton is the victim of identify theft – unfortunately a common predicament in our digital world today – but what’s different about her story is that her identity was taken, unbeknownst to her and her parents, when she was 11 years old.
She discovered it as a sophomore in college when she rented her first apartment. The electric company required her to send in a $100 deposit in order to open an account because of her credit rating. Thinking that it was because she was 19 with no credit history, she called the credit bureau out of curiosity for a copy of her report. A 10-page package arrived six weeks later with the bad news that the person who had stolen her identity had left her with a rating of 380, in the second percentile.
“I thought to myself, I’m never going to have anything,” Axton said. “How am I ever going to be able to buy a car, buy a house – To this day, I still don’t know who did it.”
Like any victim, she tried to speak with the collection agencies and other companies listed on the report to try to explain her situation. “The collection agencies don’t care. They’ll try to make a commission with anything they can to try to get you to pay them some money,” she said.
A representative at a major credit company that she contacted called her a liar, not a victim. “Someone had made payments before it went to default, which makes the credit card account look legitimate,” Axton said.
Being called a liar is somewhat common, Axton has since discovered. She’s channeled the frustration of her experience into something positive by doing her PhD dissertation on a qualitative study on the recovery experiences of adult child identity victims.
The news of her identity theft, though, had a devastating effect on her parents. Axton’s mom and dad themselves had been victims of identity theft at the same time that hers was stolen. They had spent the second half of Axton’s childhood cleaning up after the mess that the thieves made of their credit. While they never caught the culprit, they could tell, based on their activity, that it was likely someone they knew. The loss of trust had a big impact: Axton said her parents emotionally withdrew from many close relationships, including friends and family. During all those years it hadn’t occurred to Axton’s parents that the thieves also grabbed their daughter’s identity. So they never checked.
I can’t imagine the guilt that Axton’s father and mother felt when they heard the news.
--- Or maybe it’s because I can imagine it as a mother myself that I found myself silent as I listened to her story.
It never occurred to me to check my kids’ credit as I check my own. Hearing Axton speak I felt foolish not thinking of this before. But honestly, who thinks of it? Who thinks that their child’s identity could be stolen, only to be discovered when they’re an adult?
If you’re like me, and use tax season as a way to shore up financial plans for the year, join me in adding one more item to the to-do list: check your kids’ credit.
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