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Stranger Danger: Real Estate Professionals, Notaries Face Similar Risks

Notary signing agents encounter serious risks to their safety when notarizing documents in strangers’ homes.

(Originally published in the August 2015 issue of The National Notary.)

Last September, Little Rock, Arkansas, real estate agent Beverly Carter met a prospective buyer at a home in a farming community outside the city. When she didn’t return, her concerned husband went to the location and found her car abandoned. He contacted police.

Days later Carter’s body was found in a shallow grave about 20 miles from where she disappeared. The man who was scheduled to meet her, a parolee named Arron Lewis, is believed to be responsible for her murder and is awaiting trial. 

Carter’s death shocked real estate agents throughout the country. She had been a well-liked professional who lost her life simply by doing what thousands of her colleagues do every day on the job. Real estate agents aren't the only ones at risk. Notary signing agents periodically encounter serious dangers to their personal safety as they often travel to the homes of strangers to deliver and notarize home loan documents. Carter’s death prompted Notary signing agents to raise concerns about their safety while on assignment.

Five Important Safety Tips For Notaries And Signing Agents To Follow

  • Following these important steps can help keep Notaries safe when traveling on assignment.

Safety Precautions In The Real Estate Industry
 

In the past five years, there’s been a significant increase in cases of violence against people who handle real estate transactions, said Linda Rheinberger, a Las Vegas, Nevada, Realtor and regional vice president for the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Since Carter’s death, the NAR has developed new safety training programs and other resources for real estate professionals. Some Realtors are also now using emergency signal devices they can use to contact 911 in the event they can’t reach their phone in an emergency.

“The Beverly Carter case has made safety one of the top issues NAR is concentrating on,” Rheinberger said, noting that working in the real estate industry has gotten much riskier.

“A decade ago, I’d meet people for the first time at a showing,” Rheinberger said. “We wouldn’t think twice about leaving a home open for display if the owner wasn’t home. I would never do that now.”

Today, Rheinberger says she always meets prospective buyers at her office first, where there are other people around, asks to see their ID and lets her employees know where she is going. She drives separately from the customer when showing a home. If the house is vacant and she doesn’t know the person, she always has them go inside first.

Dangers Facing Notary Signing Agents
 

Signing agents on social media have described incidents ranging from signers getting upset and yelling at them regarding issues with documents to attempts to prevent a signing agent from leaving the home — which is what happened to Sybil Boudreaux, a signing agent from Houma, Louisiana, last year when she visited a man’s house to notarize documents for a refinancing.

“He was a nice person at first. In fact, I had notarized for him previously and he remembered me,” Boudreaux said. Though the initial stages of the signing went well, things turned ugly when Boudreaux asked the signer if he had two witnesses available — a requirement that Boudreaux said she had previously discussed with him by phone prior to the appointment. The signer became angry and insisted that he hadn’t been told witnesses were needed. Boudreaux told him the notarization couldn’t proceed without the witnesses, and the man tried to stop her from leaving.

“He got in front of me and grabbed at my lapel,” Boudreaux said. “I told him I was going to notify the authorities, he said he was joking and tried to back off.”

Boudreaux left immediately and went straight to the police. It turned out the signer was a sheriff’s department employee. Boudreaux reported the man’s conduct at the signing, though she ultimately declined to press charges. She was notified a week later that he had admitted to his conduct and had been fired from his job.

“I don’t think anyone should ever feel intimidated during an assignment,” she said. “If you do feel your safety has been compromised, just leave immediately and contact someone as soon as you leave. I would not hesitate one second to walk out.”

At the same time, Boudreaux also makes sure to take safety precautions both before and during an assignment. When traveling at night, she usually asks her husband to accompany her and wait in the car during the signing. “I’m very careful to let people know I’m not alone. I like to have someone with me,” Boudreaux said.

A Hostile Signing Situation
 

Another situation that sparked a nationwide discussion of signing agent safety was the case of Indiana signing agent Ashley Manfre. In a March 11, 2015 Notary Bulletin article, Manfre described how a signer became upset with her regarding money he believed he was owed by a loan officer. The signer drew a gun, brandished it at Manfre, and demanded she tell him where his money was.

Fortunately, Manfre kept her head and was able to calm the signer down to the point she was able to leave. When she contacted the title company, their first question was not about Manfre’s safety, but whether the man who held her at gunpoint had signed the loan documents.

Calling For Improved Industry Safety Standards
 

Howard Blum, owner of Pro Mobile Notary, a signing service based in San Francisco, California, said that it would be helpful if lenders warned signing services and NSAs about any “red flags” such as unusual or hostile behavior by a borrower during the loan application process.

“We would be most appreciative if lenders paid a bit of attention to the situations they force signing agents into that are not always good,” Blum said. “They know what the people are like from dealing with them.”

Blum said that he does not have a formal company policy per se regarding unsafe situations during signings, but tells Notaries he works with that they should leave if they do not feel safe in a particular neighborhood, or feel threatened or in danger in any way during a signing. He also encourages Notaries to keep their phone turned on and handy, and to carry mace or pepper spray in case of emergency.

Signing agent Maria Alanis of Fresno, California, said that in a few situations where a signer became hostile toward her, she’s had companies insist she get the person to sign the papers regardless of their behavior. “The lender should not expect the Notary to stay and complete the signing in the event of a hostile signer,” she said.

Do you think the industry needs to take other steps to ensure the safety of Notaries? Join our Notary Signing Agents Group on LinkedIn to share your thoughts​.

David Thun is an Associate Editor at the National Notary Association.

9 Comments

Add your comment

Robert L Timm

28 Sep 2015

Independant signing agents should always make sure someone knows where they are and when they plan on returning. If you do not have a spouse then make sure a close friend knows your circumstances.

Rod Foster

28 Sep 2015

Question, Professional Settlements sends me out to customers houses to have them sign the loan application and about 15 other pre-loan documents... none of them need to be notarized. they ask me to collect any paystubs, current mortgage note, HOI dek pages, etc. Do I have any restriction doing this? Do I have to have any licenses to be compliant here in Fl?

National Notary Association

28 Sep 2015

Hello. Some states have restrictions that may apply to Signing Agents and their ability to handle loan signings in their state. You can find a list of state-by-state restrictions here: http://www.nationalnotary.org/support/signing-agents/state-restrictions

James

28 Sep 2015

What I always wanted to know is, since a Notary is a Public Officer, why isn't it a felony to intimidate and/or assault them?

NSA

29 Sep 2015

The problem is some agents act as if they are employees of the company. I make it clear that I am an independent contractor there for their convenience. They will either sign or not sign, I won't sit there and argue that's not what I'm being paid to do. Will you sign? Yes? I will stay. You will not sign? Have a nice day. Simple as that.

Kim J

04 Oct 2015

I always tell my spouse where and when a signing is to take place. Our agreement is that I text him when the signing appt is over. This is my safety network. You have to be careful and ALWAYS be aware of your surroundings and never argue with the borrower. Most notaries will get compensated for travel fees even if borrower refuse to sign. Never risk your life for making a buck.

Yelena

07 Oct 2015

When I was hired to go in a bad neighborhood for singing at late hours, instead of refusing the signing I simply called the clients and nicely arranged signing in my own small office, which also made faxing back, coping IDs, emailing to agency much easier.

Sandra Guerrero

15 Oct 2015

I encountered many situations similar I always had my husband as .y driver and he check up on me periodically. I had an issue where the son wanted the signing to go on. He had. Not been truthful with his mom about refinancing, her house and he was forcing his mom to sign I told the signer I'm sorry I cannot continue with the signing I called the lender, explain ed about the under duress.. Not being willing and able. The son got verbally abusive towards me and his mother. I yetted out of there. We put our lives in danger and the lender was just concerned with did the mother sign. Under the x.??

Mister J

08 Jun 2017

This is why i flatly refuse to even consider doing mobile notary service. There's just too much riffraff out there. I only notarize documents as part of my day job. Kudos to those who are willing to tolerate this garbage on a daily basis.

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