Identifying Signers

A Notary’s  Greatest Challenge

Can I accept this ID?” “My signer doesn’t look like the photo on her ID.” “What if the ID is expired?” Of all the questions Notaries ask the  National Notary Association, the most common involve issues with verifying signers’ identities. With good reason.
“When somebody goes to a Notary with a false ID, they’re probably trying to do something a lot more sinister than just getting into a bar.” — Tim Dees

Compared to other tasks Notaries perform, verifying a signer’s identity is the most important, and arguably the most challenging. There are myriad variations of IDs and differing methods of verifying identity. And Notaries must always exercise a high-level of judgment before proceeding. Every state and U.S. territory issues driver’s licenses and ID cards. In addition, there are inmate IDs, tribal IDs and identity cards issued by federal agencies, as well as the identity cards and passports issued by every country in the world. What if the ID is issued by a county government? What if the passport is in a foreign language? Twelve states plus the District of Columbia issue driver’s licenses or driving cards to undocumented immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but they all have restrictions. What if you encounter a driver’s license marked with the words, “Federal Limits Apply” or “Permits Driving Only. Not for ID Purposes?” These issues and more constantly come up in the Notary community. And even if a signer has what appears to be a valid ID, how do you know it’s real? A recent face-matching research survey involving more than 1,150 Notaries found that they failed to spot impostors about 28 percent of the time. And about 20 percent of the time, the survey-takers thought people were impostors when they were not. Given all this, verifying the identity of signers is far more challenging than simply asking to see their ID. Yet the point of a notarization is for you to certify that your signers are who they say they are. If you neglect your duty or make a mistake, there could be serious and costly consequences. While most states define what is commonly called “satisfactory evidence of identity,” no state tells you how to apply those definitions.
By understanding the different challenges, you will be in a much better position to protect the signer, the public and yourself.
Fake Or Real Many teenagers see getting a fake ID as a right of passage, and they represent a big market for bogus IDs. Just check any college town bar. But serious criminals have been increasingly exploiting counterfeit IDs, and in big ways. Glenn Garrity, founder of the Southern California-based G2 Identity Management, noted that 49 percent of all identity theft crimes involve the use of fake IDs. In Connecticut, so many fake IDs were coming into the state that
some grocery stores started asking customers buying alcohol for back-up identification, according to media reports. Many of the websites that sell fake IDs are located overseas, especially in China. While they officially sell the IDs as “novelties,” they often are high-quality imitations of the real thing. And for criminals, that can be a gateway to big financial gain. “If you have one good piece of identification, that’s what you use to leverage your way into other good pieces of identification or other documents that are going to be worthwhile to you,” said Tim Dees, a law enforcement consultant and former Reno, Nevada, police officer. “When somebody goes to a Notary with a false ID, they’re probably trying to do something a lot more sinister than just getting into a bar.” Garrity noted that scam artists are getting
Can I accept this ID?” “My signer doesn’t look like the photo on her ID.” “What if the ID is expired?” Of all the questions Notaries ask the  National Notary Association, the most common involve issues with verifying signers’ identities. With good reason.
“When somebody goes to a Notary with a false ID, they’re probably trying to do something a lot more sinister than just getting into a bar.” — Tim Dees
savvier. He has seen cases where scammers in California, for example, use fake IDs supposedly from the East Coast. “They rely on the fact that you won’t be as familiar with those IDs.” While Notaries should be familiar with the IDs issued by their state, he suggested keeping the latest edition of the I.D. Checking Guide on hand. The book, which is updated every year, includes descriptions and sample images of driver’s licenses and ID cards issued in the U.S. and Canada, as well as U.S. federal IDs. It also notes the security elements — such as holograms, UV images and microprinting — that appear on the IDs. To spot a fake, Garrity recommends that you take the ID in hand so you can feel the texture and tactile elements, and notice any unusual features. Then look for the right security features. Compare the photo and description with your signer. You can ask questions. Garrity said that scammers probably will know the fake date of birth, but not always their zodiac sign. Or ask for the name of a major cross street at their address.
Are You An Impostor? Perhaps the hardest task in checking a person’s identity is matching the ID photo to the person in front of you. “It’s incredibly difficult to match a face to a photo ID,” said Megan Papesh, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Louisiana State University, who conducted the face-matching survey mentioned above. One of the problems is that ID photos and descriptions can be 10 or more years old, and people often change their appearance, even over relatively short periods of time. New Jersey Notary Michael Harris experienced that first hand. He recalled a loan signing where the borrower, a middle-aged woman, looked very different than the woman in the ID photo. “She showed me a series of photos on her refrigerator that documented her year-long weight loss of 100+ pounds,” Harris said. “By examining the progression of the photos, I was convinced that she was who she claimed to be.” Dr. Papesh noted that cross-cultural differences are particularly challenging. People have a much harder time accurately identifying individuals from another culture or race. As imperfect as matching faces to ID photos is, she said, there isn’t a better way to identify people at present because reliable facial recognition technology is not available. She offered some suggestions to minimize the risk of missing an impostor.
Features such as hair and weight can change, so Dr. Papesh recommended focusing on features that don’t change much, such as the size and shape of a person’s ears, nose, mouth and eyes. Examine the nose line or general size and shape of the chin. The distance between the nose, mouth and chin also can be revealing. But don’t just stick to one set of features. “What works when checking some individuals will not work for others,” Dr. Papesh said. “It’s a good idea to check a few features without getting tripped up by hair, weight and skin shade.”
The ‘Reasonable Person’ Standard To some, it may seem as though Notaries are expected to be experts at verifying identities. In fact, given the sheer mass of identity-related issues in the world, it might seem that you have to be experts to carry out your duties. But that’s not the case. For the most part, Notaries are expected to take the same steps that          a reasonable person would take in performing their duties, including verifying signers’ identities. California, which has a specific list of IDs that Notaries in the state may accept, further defines satisfactory evidence of identity as “the absence of information or other circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the signer is not the individual he or she claims to be.” Florida, which has a similar list of acceptable IDs, applies what it calls a “reasonable care” standard, which is defined as the “degree of concern and attentiveness that a person of normal intelligence and responsibility would exhibit.” And, both states have the same language in their laws clarifying that the standard for identification is “reasonable reliance on the presentation” of the ID to the Notary. “Verifying identity is not an exact science,” said Bill Anderson, the NNA’s Vice President of Government Affairs. “This is an area where the Notary needs to exercise the most judgment.” Notaries can compare a signer to the ID photo and the physical description. They can compare the signature on the ID to that on the document. But it is still a judgment call. (See page 13 for resources about your state’s requirements.) Because there are so many potential gray areas, Anderson emphasized the need to take reasonable steps when making a judgement. He recommended an identity-vetting protocol for Notaries incorporating three best practices: “It’s incredibly  difficult to match a face to a photo ID.”  — Megan Papesh
Identity-Vetting Resources There are so many issues involved with properly identifying signers that every Notary could use some helpful resources. Here is a list of resources that are readily available to you: •  Your state Notary handbook: Most states publish handbooks for their Notaries that include identification requirements or expectations. They usually are available from your commissioning agency. •  State Law Summaries: The NNA’s library of State Law Summaries provide overviews of each state’s Notary laws (at, including ID requirements, and are available at no charge to the entire Notary community. •  The Notary Bulletin: The NNA’s online publication has many articles covering a wide range of identityvetting subjects that are available (at to the entire Notary community at no charge. •  NNA “Commonly Asked Questions” Webinars: The NNA’s free webinar library ( includes “ID Fraud — A Notary Trap” and “How to ID in a Multi-Cultural World.” •  I.D. Checking Guide: This publication comes in two editions — U.S. & Canada, which is updated annually, and an International Edition. They have been described as the “ID Bible” and include images and descriptions of most of the IDs you may encounter. They are available at •  NNA® Hotline: This is one of the most important member benefits. You can get answers to your specific questions at 888-876-0827 or
•  Look for suspicious circumstances: Is the signer trying to rush you or distract you from your normal procedures? Is the signer explaining why their signatures might not match or why they don’t look like their ID photo? “A little common sense goes a long way,” Anderson said.
•  Examine the ID: Look at the ID closely and check the various security features, such as the ghost images, microprinting and raised lettering. Have an ID guide handy for out-of-state IDs.
•  Match the ID to the signer: Instead of looking at hair, weight and other changeable features, focus on features that don’t change as much, such as the shape and position of ears, the nose, the mouth and the eyes.
“By following these steps you can you clearly explain your method of reasonably verifying signers’ identity,” he said. Dr. Papesh offered another suggestion to the protocols: Take  your time. “Most of the time when people make a really critical error in checking someone’s ID, it’s because they inconvenience the person whose ID they are checking,” she said. “They let something go. So it’s important to take more time.”

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