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Electronic signatures: Can technology prevent forgery?

"I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man," wrote Alexander Hamilton. Will technology solve the age-old quest for authentic documents, and identify electronic signatures that seem suspicious?

Signature forgery is falsely replicating the signature of another person, usually without the subject's consent.
Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images

Historical References

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, dozens of dignitaries from all 13 colonies gathered in Philadelphia to sign one of America's most important documents. In those days, verification simply meant a visual test, and the assumption that no gentleman would risk death by falsifying a signature meant for King George III of England.

One of history's most controversial forgeries was the Donation of Constantine, which was a falsified decree by which emperor Constantine I supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western Roman Empire to the Pope.

Forgery

Signature forgery is falsely replicating the signature of another person, usually without the subject's consent. It involves the criminal alteration of a written instrument for the purpose of fraud or deceit. In the United States, perpetrators can receive a felony or misdemeanor conviction, depending on the type of document forged and amounts involved.

There are five elements of forgery:

(1) False document and/or signature;

(2) Material alteration that significantly changes a document;

(3) Ability to fool most observers;

(4) Legal efficacy (affects another person's right to something);

(5) Intent to defraud.

Falsified documents include checks, ID theft-related documents, business documents (such as bills of exchange), academic records, credit cards, promissory notes, deeds, titles, securities, court seals, and corporate documents.

Victims

Students may engage in relatively harmless types of forgery, such as signing a high school report card in lieu of a parent. However, continued practice can result in serious consequences later in life.

According to the FBI, persons from age 18 to 34 perpetrated the largest incidence of forgery and counterfeiting among U.S. age groups. Acquaintances are also the most common victims of counterfeiting schemes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Banks and financial institutions are the most common locations for forgery. In 2012, NFL quarterback Vince Young sued a lender for allegedly forging his signature on high-interest loan documents.

5 Visual Warnings

Here are five warning signs of a non-genuine signature, according to Norwitch Document Laboratory, a records examination firm. The handwriting can have:

(1) Blunt starts and stops, which causes unusual emphasis on the beginning and/or ending of a signature;

(2) Pen lifts and hesitation, which can cause small gaps or overlapping lines of ink;

(3) Tremor, resulting in a non-fluid looking line;

(4) Speed and pressure;

(5) Patching, which is an effort to make a signature passable by fixing a defect in the criminal's penmanship.

Traditionally, banks and businesses have relied on employees' visual assessment (the eyeball test) to guard against forged signatures. Also, financial institutions require customers to present a valid ID.

Skilled perpetrators (such ID thieves) can replicate a signature if they have access to an authentic sample. Also, a high number of transactions can place pressure on employees to speedily approve a document to avoid customer delays.

Verification Technology

A small or complex signature limits an employee's ability to detect unusual or exaggerated patterns. Handwriting can reveal suspicious patterns at a microscopic level (such as hand tremor, which may result in shaky lines).

Small clues can escape detection, even by a trained human eye. This is where technology can play a larger role in reducing fraud.

If you buy goods from an online retailer and the process requires a digital signature, will the process detect a forged e-sign? Currently, the answer is no.

Software that detects falsified photos and altered documents are available. However, there's a lack of technology that can verify signature authenticity. Also, such solutions currently do not exist in the mobile ecosystem, such as iOS and Android apps.

Gaming Apps

In 2013, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and PokerStars collectively launched a gaming app ("Play To Cure: Genes in Space") that helps researchers find a cure for cancer. In the game, players analyze genetic data from real patients -- patient data are expressed as obstacles and objectives within a futuristic game.

In the app, patient information are expressed as asteroids, and players guide a spaceship to find a fictitious cargo (that represents gene flaws that could potentially lead to cancer). Researchers wanted to use the human eye to detect genetic patterns.

Since forgeries involve microscopic nuances, app developers could use similar methods to detect unusual patterns. The five visual warnings of a forgery can be expressed as shapes or objects in a gaming app, in which players would visually identify signatures that could be fake.

Suspicious patterns could then force a user to undergo security prompts, such as providing an address or mother's maiden name.

Fingerprint Scanning

On the Web, it’s tough for businesses to request a valid ID. Mobile fingerprint scanning could be a groundbreaking solution for ecommerce.

In June 2014, Apple announced that its fingerprint scanning technology, Touch ID, will be available to banks, retailers, and other companies that develop apps for Apple’s hand-held devices.

That means a few major banks may soon require customers to log into an account using fingerprint identification.

User Verification

Whether or not signature verification emerges as a scalable technology remains to be seen. It appears the marketplace wants to replicate security protocols implemented by the public sector.

For example, intelligence agencies collect biometric data (retina scans, facial features, voice recognition, and fingerprints) to verify a person's identity. Thus, verified identification along with a person's signature is a government solution that’s spilling over into the private sector.

With Apple's announcement on Touch ID, banks are signaling a preference to verify a customer's identity before processing a transaction.

Electronic signature is a useful tool for conveying agreement and consent.

To prevent fraud, it appears institutions would rather verify ID than develop new technology that identify potential forgeries. It seems easier (and more cost effective) to match a fingerprint than analyze the complex nuances of penmanship.