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3 important things Notaries need to know about AI fraud

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This article is part of our series focused on Notaries and how they can navigate the age of Artificial Intelligence.

Notary fraud is no joke. You should not shrug off the possibility that a signer may try to deceive you to pull off document- or financial-related crimes. The consequences can be staggering for both customers and Notaries.

What makes things more complicated is that the growing use of Artificial Intelligence means that criminals today have even more sophisticated tools to deceive Notaries and the public.

Here are 3 essential facts Notaries need to know about synthetic identity and document crimes committed today and the best ways to prevent them.

1. Never take Notary fraud lightly. The consequences can be life-threatening.

You might think you have nothing to worry about. You might think “I only notarize documents for my boss and co-workers at my office. What’s the chance of anything going wrong?” Others might think, “It doesn’t matter if I bend or skip a few rules when notarizing for friends or family — notarizing for them isn’t a big deal.”

This is a dangerous attitude because that’s precisely what criminals want you to think. Relaxing your standards can have dire consequences not only for you, but your customers as well. Victims of Notary fraud in real-life cases have not only lost their finances — some have lost their lives:

In 1998, New York socialite Irene Silverman disappeared. After her disappearance, a mother and son duo, Sante and Kenneth Kimes, made appointments with two Notaries. Sante Kimes posed as Silverman and tried to have fraudulent documents notarized to give her and her son ownership of Silverman’s property. One Notary was suspicious of Sante Kimes’ appearance and lack of proper ID and refused to participate, but another notarized blank affidavits for the couple. Sante and Kenneth Kimes were later arrested, convicted of murdering Silverman to steal her property, and sent to prison.

In 2004, a retired couple, Thomas and Jackie Hawks, disappeared from Southern California after arranging the sale of their yacht to a former child actor, Skylar Deleon. Deleon and a local Notary claimed they had met with the couple to sign and notarize the documents, and Thomas and Jackie had left after accepting payment. However, the Notary later admitted that she had never met the couple, and agreed to Deleon’s demand to notarize falsified documents. Police learned that Deleon and two accomplices lured the couple out on the yacht during negotiations and drowned them, then used the forged documents to take possession of the yacht. Deleon is currently incarcerated on death row.

In 2008, David Replogle and a group of co-conspirators murdered Palm Springs resident Cliff Lambert to steal and resell his home and assets. According to police, Replogle appeared before a Notary posing as Lambert, leaving a thumbprint in the Notary’s journal. Replogle later tried unsuccessfully to steal the journal, which led police to arrest him and his accomplices.

2. AI technology is making Notary crime harder to spot.

To add to the challenges Notaries face, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is making it more difficult to detect identity fraud. As discussed in our previous article on AI-generated fraud, AI can not only be used to steal a victim’s sensitive personal information. It can also create false “deepfake” images and voices to help criminals pose as other people.

The Federal Trade Commission has proposed rules to prohibit the use of AI to generate images, video and text to harm consumers through impersonation. “Fraudsters are using AI tools to impersonate individuals with eerie precision and at a much wider scale. With voice cloning and other AI-driven scams on the rise, protecting Americans from impersonator fraud is more critical than ever,” Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina M. Khan said in February.

“As the use of AI grows, lawmakers are concerned about its use for fraud. They are getting really nervous,” NNA President Tom Heymann said last year in his keynote speech at the 2023 NNA Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. “What artificial intelligence is capable of now is almost like magic.”

3. The simplest way to fight Notary fraud: Always follow the rules — no exceptions.

The murder and fraud cases, combined with the growing threat of AI-assisted fraud, can seem pretty scary for the average Notary on the street. But it’s important to know that every Notary has a simple, highly effective defense against any kind of notarization fraud: Just follow the rules for proper notarization every time. Require the signer’s personal appearance, be sure to properly identify every signer, and record the details of each notarization carefully in your journal of notarial acts.

In each of the real-life cases, the actions of Notaries played a crucial part. The culprits in the Silverman murder would not have been able to attempt the fraudulent theft of Silverman’s home without the aid of a Notary willing to notarize blank documents improperly. In the Deleon case, the perpetrator would not have been able to create the forged yacht sale documents without the Notary’s agreement to notarize the forged signatures without the victims present. The suspects in the Lambert killing were caught thanks in part to the signature and thumbprint left in the Notary’s journal entry.

What about sophisticated fake images and IDs created by AI? Again, while most Notaries aren’t technology experts, they have something electronic security doesn’t have: Common sense and judgment. While AI may be able to perfectly copy a signer’s voice over a phone or video transmission, that still won’t work for getting past a traditional pen-and-paper notarization as long as the Notary correctly insists on the signer appearing physically in person. Creating a fake electronic persona might fool a Notary for an online notarization — but a would-be criminal may reconsider if they know the Notary is required to keep an audiovisual recording and a journal record of each online act.

So while Notary fraud may seem daunting in today’s high-tech world, don’t be intimidated — just stick to doing your job the right way. If something seems strange, it’s always better to contact your state Notary office or the NNA Hotline to ask questions to ensure everything is aboveboard before proceeding. And if something seems suspicious, don’t be afraid to say “No.”

David Thun is the Editorial Manager at the National Notary Association.

Related Articles:

Notaries are more important than ever amid the rise of Artificial Intelligence.

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