More than you may think if it is in writing.
Whilst conducting a public examination some months ago, we were asking a witness about signatures on a mortgage document. Now this was a mortgage that the witness was trying to rely upon, so his answers were especially, let’s say, amusing.
“Is this your signature on the document?” – “Maybe”
“Maybe? Is that your signature?” – “It could be”
“So, you cannot definitely say that you signed this mortgage, the signature may not be yours?” – “No, not really”
End of dodgy mortgage, house goes to bankruptcy trustee and creditors are happy. Some more recent events led me to remember that examination, and to think about (in a fraud awareness sense) signatures and forgeries.
Signatures are important things. They appear on everything in our lives from Birth Certificates, Marriage Certificates to Death Certificates. In our industries they appear on tax returns, contracts, affidavits and a whole range of other business documents. They allow us to buy or rent things, borrow money and for other people to take our money from our bank account (i.e. cheques). So someone forging your signature may cause you real problems.
There are four basic ways to forge a signature.
- The simplest is to just sign the person’s name in your own hand.
You are not trying to copy their signature, you are just signing their name in your own handwriting. Unless the recipient of the signature has an authentic signature to compare it against, they will not know that it is a fake. Many fraudsters conducting identity theft use this technique, as they have also produced or obtained a fake driver’s license etc that also have their version of the signature on it which can be used in signature comparisons. Obviously these forgeries can easily be proven as fake, but usually well after the damage has been done.
- Practice makes perfect.
You try to prefect a signature that, without very close examination, resembles the real signature. This technique is used when documents have to be signed in front of other people and may be checked against a sample. But no matter how much practice is done, you will never be able to reproduce someone else’s signature exactly. The flow of the pen held by a particular hand and the way that it is pressed into a piece of paper is very distinctive and forensic documents examiners should be able to identify these inconsistencies, but again, probably well after the fact.
- Signatures may be traced.
This is not a technique that can be done in front of independent witnesses. ‘Just hang on while I whip out a copy of my signature and trace it out for you. You see, well, I keep forgetting what it looks like.’ This can only be done without other parties present. Under a close examination traced signatures will look like they have been traced. They will generally not have any ‘flow’ about them and look like they have been drawn slowly – which they have – and will lack many of the characteristics of the original.
Modern technology has also added the ‘cut and paste’ forgery to the list. A real signature can be copied or scanned and pasted onto electronic documents. Once printed, they may look very real – because the signature is real. They are just not ‘original’ nor placed on the document by the owner of the signature.
A document examiner recently explained the one thing that people could do to help forgery-proof their signatures. It was ‘make them long and flowery’. Not exactly what I was expecting.
He said that the shorter the signature, generally the easier it is to copy and the less material there is for an examiner to compare. So, do not abbreviate, use your full name if possible. He also said that the more stylized or ‘flowery’ the signature, the easier it is to find forgeries as a forger will never be able to copy the flow of a person’s hand and wrist movements exactly. This will lead to discrepancies in the signatures that may not be obvious through the naked eye (the pressure on the paper and the curves in the flow of the writing) but will show up under very close (sometimes microscopic) examination.
So the saying ‘sign your life away’ may also be ‘someone else using your signature to sign your life to them’.