Signatures on legal and commercial documents are often questioned. But how can you avoid becoming a hostage of fortune to your own signature? Dave Madden explains how to reduce the risk
Your signature is an important piece of your own individual makeup. It is unique to you, and even today in the digital world is still widely used to indicate consent to a wide variety of transactions. Seen in this context it is surprising how little care is taken by many people in signing even the most important of documents. Some problematic signatures are –
If your signature is too simple, short or written slowly with a low skill level it is generally fair game to a forger with even a modicum of ability. An extreme example would be a cross-mark, which could be a valid legal signature if witnessed, but which would be difficult to authenticate by a document examiner.
Many professionals seem to think that a flamboyant, scrawled signature is difficult to simulate when in fact the opposite is the case. These types of signatures are often straightforward for a forger who with a bit of practice can generally replicate one or more movements with sufficient speed and accuracy to pass muster.
If your signatures have no consistency there is no underlying pattern that can be established and used as a benchmark for identification purposes. In this scenario it would be almost impossible to prove whether one of your individual signatures was genuine or not.
The most difficult type of signature to simulate is actually one is written with a good balance of rhythm and form. In simple terms this means a signature that is consistent, smoothly executed and contains numerous individual letter forms, connecting strokes and other features. The signature of our own Michael D Higgins below would be one good example.
Even if your signature does not fall into one of the problematic categories mentioned earlier it is worth taking some additional precautions –
Tip #1 – Important documents should be witnessed
This may seem fairly basic but it is surprising how often this fails to happen or even when it does the choice of witness may not be appropriate.
Tip #2 – Date your documents
Written dates, as with signatures, can often be highly individual so they can also be used by a document examiner as an additional way of establishing authenticity.
Tip #3 – Use a consistent signature format
Many Irish people have English or Irish versions of their name and may also have several different forenames. A lot of people choose to use different signature formats depending on what they sign, but ideally it would be best to stick to one format.
Tip #4 – Sign documents regularly and keep them
It is vital if a document examiner is to authenticate a questioned signature that suitable comparison signatures are available. If a twenty year old document is produced containing a questioned signature it may be difficult to determine its authenticity if contemporaneous comparison signatures are not available.
Tip #5 – Never sign blank pieces of paper or forms
It is dangerous practice to sign anything that has not been completed beforehand. With modern word processing packages a fraudulent document can be easily built around a genuine signature on a blank piece of paper.
Tip #6 – Sign or initial individual pages
Important documents containing multiple pages should have each page signed or initialled. This helps prevent pages being substituted or added after the fact, or the signature page being appended to a completely different document, something that I have seen on numerous occasions.
Tip #7 – The danger of electronic signatures
It is becoming normal to see electronic scanned copies of a handwritten signature being appended to documents which are then distributed by email, often to a wide audience. What you have effectively done here is provide a vital piece of information to anyone who may be interested in creating a false instrument with your signature on it. Using computer programs these high quality signatures can easily be “dropped” onto a new document. They can be resized, stretched or the colour can be changed. A new simulated signature can be “built” by cutting individual letters and features from several different electronic signatures. The resulting composite signature would be unique and would fall within the normal range of variation of the writer. If this activity is suspected access to the original questioned document should always be sought – it does of course not exist in the case of such a “cut and paste”.
What happens if it all goes wrong?
If you do believe that your signature has been simulated or added to a document without your knowledge or consent a competent Forensic Document Examiner should be able to provide assistance. Forensic Document Examination is one of the oldest forensic disciplines and providing a sound scientific process has been followed, the results are reliable and generally accepted by courts worldwide.
Dave Madden, BSc, CSG.CDE, DIS is a Forensic Document Examiner providing services to the Legal Profession, Companies and Private Individuals in Ireland.
He can be contacted at documentexaminer.ie