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.

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? 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 imposters about 28 percent of the time. And about 20 percent of the time, the survey-takers thought people were imposters 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. By understanding the different challenges, you will be in a much better position to protect the signer, the public and yourself.

Is The ID Fake Or Real?

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.

Garrity noted that scam artists are getting 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 ID, 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 Imposter?

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.

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 imposter.

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.

“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.

Because there are so many potential gray areas, Anderson emphasized the need to take reasonable steps when making a judgment. He recommended an identity-vetting protocol for Notaries incorporating three best practices:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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.”

Michael Lewis is Managing Editor of member publications for the National Notary Association.


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