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The Notary Challenge: Matching faces to ID harder than you think


Updated 10-8-14: Properly identifying signers is one of the most important tasks Notaries carry out, but that task may be harder than you think. Recent research by a pair of university psychology professors shows that people often fail to spot imposters — as much as 45 percent of the time — when comparing faces to ID photos.

The results of the NNA’s ID-matching quiz bear this out. Notaries who took the quiz failed to discern imposters from genuine signers nearly one-third of the time.

The quiz presented 18 pairs of photos. One photo was of an actual driver’s license and the other was a candid shot either of the person in the ID or an imposter. Quiz takers were asked to decide who was an imposter and who wasn’t. Half of the photo pairs were of imposters.

More than 2,900 members of the NNA’s Notary community took the quiz, and about 32 percent of the time they failed to catch the imposter. Equally, they said the photos of people who matched their IDs were imposters 31 percent of the time.

“It’s incredibly difficult to match a face to a photo ID,” said Megan Papesh, an assistant professor of psychology at Louisiana State University, who provided the photos used on the ID-matching quiz.

One reason is that people often change their appearance, even over relatively short periods of time, Papesh said.

In a recent LinkedIn post, New Jersey Notary Michael Harris recalled meeting a middle-aged woman at a loan signing who 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 wrote. “By examining the progression of the photos, I was convinced that she was who she claimed to be.”

Failing to catch imposters

Papesh and her research partner, Stephen Goldinger, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, earlier this year published the results of a study that examined how difficult it was to match faces to ID photos.

Papesh and Goldinger showed their test subjects — all university students — more than 200 pairs of photographs of strangers. One photo was of a student’s ID that was taken anywhere from a few months to seven years earlier. The second photo was a candid, recent shot either of the person in the student ID or an imposter.​

The ID-matching challenge

Test subjects who were shown a high percentage of mismatched photos missed the fakes 20 percent of the time. Subjects who saw a low number of mismatched pairs failed to catch about 45 percent of the imposters.

The NNA’s quiz corresponded to the group of Papesh’s test subjects who were shown a high percentage of fakes. And the Notaries got it wrong nearly one third of the time, much worse than the student test subjects.

“That’s really surprising,” Papesh said of the NNA quiz results. “It shows a lot of work needs to be done” to improve how we match faces to IDs.

In a world where many states auto-renew drivers licenses, and a signer’s ID photo could be a decade or more old, it can be very hard to tell if an ID and specific signer go together. Have they gained weight, changed their hair, had plastic surgery or just aged?

Papesh also noted that cross-cultural differences complicate matters. People have a much harder time accurately identifying people from another culture or race.

As imperfect as matching faces to ID photos is, Papesh 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 like hair and weight can change, so 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.

ID-vetting protocol

Bill Anderson, Vice President of Legislative Affairs for the NNA, recommended an identity-vetting protocol for Notaries incorporating three best practices.

  • 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.

Papesh added one final thought 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.”

For more information on this subject, see the October issue of the NNA’s member magazine, The National Notary.

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Add your comment

Bill Labkoff

29 Sep 2014

The new PA Notary Law specifically covers this situation, spelling out that Notaries can refuse to notarize if photo doesn't match physical appearance- Notaries have to go further in proper identification than relying strictly on legal requirements- I wonder how many will ?????


29 Sep 2014

Very interesting exercise, thank you! I notarize primarily for our corporate officers, so this issue has not really come up for me. But you've encouraged me to be VERY careful in future! Would have liked to see a "final" score at the end of the quiz, and perhaps a few more tips on looking at and differentiating the shape of ears, eyes, neck (goitre), etc. Best, ~A

Michelle Doherty

29 Sep 2014

Where are the results at the end of the quiz? I have no idea how I did.

National Notary Association

29 Sep 2014

Hi Michelle. Unfortunately, the quiz creation software we currently have available isn't able to generate a score for each individual participant, which is why we included the answers at the end to allow you to compare how you did. We are looking into options to see if we can add this feature in future quizzes.


29 Sep 2014

I agree with Allison above and also notarize primarily for corporate officers and is not an issue. Very interesting exercise, thank you! But you've encouraged me to be VERY careful in future! Would have liked to see a "final" score at the end of the quiz, and perhaps a few more tips on looking at and differentiating the shape of ears, eyes, neck (goitre), etc.


29 Sep 2014

Yes, I agree with Allison that this was a very interesting exercise. I wasn't quite certain how the quiz was set up and would have liked a summary of my choices in the "line ups". Reinforces the use of the fingerprint at notarization as well with the hope that it doesn't have to come into play to locate an imposter.

Lavinia Fitzpatrick

29 Sep 2014

I agree with Allison-I would have liked to see a "final" score! When you're looking at comparing ID to actual faces, you really have to think outside the box. While an individual may have general characteristics that group them together, it's the subtleties that actually set us apart!! Just do your due diligence and stand by your decision!! You cannot be faulted for THAT! :-)

Jamie McMullen

29 Sep 2014

Very interesting and thought provoking exercise. I found it really made me think of detection clues as I progressed. I would like to see more exercises like this.

Toni Fresquez

29 Sep 2014

Like Michelle Doherty where's the result? It was a very good exercise but at the same time it would be nice to know how one did.


30 Sep 2014

Same size the photographs...


01 Oct 2014

Would be nice to know the results.


01 Oct 2014

The test didn't give me the result. Nevertheless, it was a great exercise to raise awareness. I got it just over 55% correct. I will brush up...

Susanne Pellicano

02 Oct 2014

I got 30% wrong and 70% right. I kept score, just so I could compare with the correct answers. I automatically assumed they would give you an overall score, but just in case. I found this very difficult to do. I really had to study the faces and features. Thanks for showing us how easy it is to not notice a fake ID. This will help me to be more aware going forward. Thanks for the test.


06 Oct 2014

Missed 3 out of 15, but seriously, do states issue such blurry DL photos? Hope not. One gal had a dimple right cheek. Smiling DL photo so blurry couldn't tell if she had one n that or not. If u really want accurate data, do it scientifically, not with tricks. We get the point without that.


09 Oct 2014

Did not give me results at end.


13 Oct 2014

Very interesting. I did well. I missed 2 or 3 I think.


13 Oct 2014

Did not see results.


13 Oct 2014

Timely wake up call


13 Oct 2014

No results but interesting exercise. Great content.


13 Oct 2014

no results available

Jeanette Powell

13 Oct 2014

It would be nice to see personal results


13 Oct 2014


Kelly O'Leary

13 Oct 2014

Definitely more challenging than I expected. I could risk a guess that it's easier looking at a real person compared to a second photograph. I can see height, weight and also compare signatures. I have started dialogues when there appears to be discrepancies and most are easily resolved. Thought provoking test!

MAxine Felder-Barrington

13 Oct 2014

Very interesting. Missed 2 out of 18.


13 Oct 2014

I missed 6 in all, but am curious to know why. I said several were fake based on the 10 year validity dates on the ID's. Hard to think any state would issue an ID for a 16 year old that would be valid for so long! I also selected false for one or two because there was no DOB listed, assuming it was a false ID when in fact it was considered to be real. Would like to know what actually was wrong with the ID's... wrong face, wrong dates, wrong description, etc. Or was it in fact just the wrong person/face? Not clear.

Maribel Quiles

13 Oct 2014

I received a score of 97%


14 Oct 2014

Great Exercise. I would like to see more of these.

Jena Harris

15 Oct 2014

I agree it would be nice to know the results and to have the photos the same size would be helpful in order to verify the one thing that is a constant-eye color. Nevertheless, it was a thought provoking exercise in discernment. Thanks for the opportunity to give it a try.


23 Oct 2014

Very interesting quiz. I missed 2 out of 18, but it still would have been nice to see a "score" I don't know about anyone else but I was looking to match the faces not the information on the ID cards. Visual ID confirmation is usually the first thing I do when I'm notarizing. Then when the faces match I then look at the other information such as DOB and the description on the card (i.e. eye color, hair color)

Carolyn Lipnick

03 Nov 2014

Results of my test did not come up! Very disappointed. The page that tells you how to become a Notary popped up instead.

J Kay Lanier

07 Nov 2014

I didn't miss one! I skim info for basics first, height being first. Then I look at ears, eyes, nose, & any marks, tats, or scars. In California we are taught how to spot impostors & it saved my behind quite a few times. I would just tell them I couldn't accept the ID as was & told them to call the lender. I would call the lender & let them know they had a fake ID so they knew when the borrower called them. It's hard at times, but after 18 years working in business offices you get pretty good at spotting fakes. That was fun. Any more tests we can use for training?


12 Nov 2014

ID Quiz did not come up.

Guy Ciasullo

23 Mar 2015

This was a true wake up call.


28 Mar 2016

I took that test with about the same overall result as reported. However, a photo is a static thing and I think seeing the live person helps as you can ask them to smile (if the photo shows that) or take off the other words...duplicate the photo...or not!

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