By Greg Wright
MBA, CFE, CFP®, CLU, ChFC
Certified Fraud Examiner
Certified Financial Planner™
Most criminals convicted of financial fraud are also convicted of forgery. Sometimes a fraudster’s only conviction is for “forgery.” When I see a document forgery conviction by itself without another charge, it tends to raise a number of questions.
Financial crimes are often complex to audit and prove. Many detectives tend to avoid them. Prosecutors may secure a forgery conviction to avoid the cost and effort required to understand, and prove a complex case. You may recall that the famed “Al Capone” was not convicted for bootlegging or racketeering. Instead, he was convicted of tax evasion.
By placing our signature on a document, we are implying our agreement with circumstances and information provided by that document. A signature may be nothing more than an extension of your cursive handwriting, which may have changed over time to such an extent that today it has few, if any, recognizable letters.
Years ago, after joined a financial services organization, I was turned over to an “old timer” for training. After passing the regulator’s exams, this elderly gentleman was to “show me the ropes” – training that was not part of the examinations I had just completed.
He explained that there were many papers requiring customer signatures, and it was easy to overlook a form. When you get back to the office, he explained, and turn in the customer check and paperwork to the backroom officer – a very stern older female would review it for completeness. If you forgot to have him sign or initial a form in the right place, even if it seemed insignificant, you would be sent back to the customer to have it signed and dated. Embarrassing for a newbie.
He said not to worry and that it was easy to forge most signatures. He proceeded to show me how to trace a signature by placing a document with an original signature on a plate glass window and the document to be forged on top. The original was placed upside down, and the signature lines of the two documents were aligned. He suggested the use of a pen with the same color ink. He had a coffee cup filled with different color: both felt-tipped and ball-point pens for that purpose.
The type of forging suggested by this old timer is categorized by document examiners as “transmitted light tracing.”
Traced forgeries are generally created by one of three methods: “transmitted light,” “carbon intermediate,” or “pressure indented image.” Traced signatures are the most frequent type of signature forgery. “Tracing” often employes a broad-tipped instrument such as a felt-tip or even a fountain pen. This wider ink line serves to hide inconsistencies better than a ballpoint pen.
Here are a few areas document examiners look for:
· Since no two signatures from the same person are ever totally duplicated, total agreement between two or more questioned signatures is adequate proof of tracing. Magnification and the use of a black light can help identify signature forgeries.
· Pen lifts and hesitation marks happen when the pen stops at an unusual point in the writing. This may take on the appearance of a small gap in the written line where it should not be expected.
· Because the creation of forged signatures are simply drawings, tremor lines may be evident when the pen is moving oh so slowly. This can cause slight changes in direction take place in what should be a fluid-looking line. The resultant line reflects the “shaking” pen.
· Normally, when you sign your name, the speed and pressure of signature writing will vary. However, because the fraudster’s pen is moving slowly rather than the dynamic movement of most genuine writings, the ink line remains constant in thickness.
· Blunt starts and stops occur when the forger places the pen point in contact with the paper, and then starts writing. When he is finished with the, he stops the pen and lifts the pen from the surface. This may cause an blunt start or ending where the pen was placed. At times this contact is held so long that if the pen ink will wet the paper and migrate slightly
· Infrequently, most of us have made an error in our signature and we will let it stand, while others will simply “fix” the signature by correcting it. These “fixes” are usually done without an attempt made on the part of the writer to mask or otherwise hide the correction. These signature corrections are quite different than the patching that is frequently found in non-genuine signatures.
Recently, a very successful local stockbroker was accused and fired because of forgery accuations. He was not prosecuted. Some industry insiders believe that he was fired because of other non specified reasons. The employer could make the forgery stick and it caused him to lose his license. However, he had been in the process of moving his block of business to a competing firm.
If you suspect that a signature has been forged, seek out a qualified document examiner. However, a black light (longwave ultraviolet light) can help identify differences in ink and some of the irregularities described above.