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When ‘tricks’ or ‘treats’ aren’t fun and games for Notaries


(Originally published in the October 2014 issue of The National Notary.)

For children, the phrase “trick or treat” means fun and candy on Halloween — but for Notaries, it means something else entirely.

Sometimes you run into shady signers who tried to “trick” you with a false ID, a phony story or even disguises, or you are offered “treats” such as gratuities, gifts or other items that may not be appropriate to accept.

State laws don’t cover every situation you may encounter, so there will be occasions when you must rely on common sense, ethical guidelines and your own judgment. Below are some murky situations Notaries have encountered with “tricks” and “treats” and some suggestions if you come across a similar situation.

Watch out for signers trying to “trick” you …

It seemed like a straightforward request. A husband and wife approached Notary James Franklin of Gulfport, Mississippi, and asked him to notarize their signatures on documents for a condominium purchase. But Franklin noticed something was amiss when the “wife” presented her identification.

“They had a copy of the wife’s ID, which was 30 years old and expired,” he said. Odder still, the “wife” looked much younger than 30. Clearly, the woman wasn’t married to the “husband.” He was trying to buy property under his real wife’s name, Franklin said.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s experience wasn’t the first time that a signer has tried to trick a Notary — and he’s not likely to be the last, either. Aynn McGuire of San Diego, California, shared a very similar encounter with the NNA’s Facebook community. She, too, had a dubious husband and wife issue. “I knew his wife — we went to the same hair salon!” McGuire said. She knew instantly that the woman in front of her was an imposter.

Sometimes a dishonest person’s efforts to fool a Notary are so obvious they seem funny, like when Seattle, Washington, Notary Valeria Rodruck had a signer appear twice before her on the same day, the second time claiming to be his own twin brother. But remember that fraud is a serious offense, and tricking a Notary can be part of an attempt to commit a more serious crime, as Notary Don Aoki discovered.

Aoki went to the New York City home of a woman named Irene Silverman to notarize signatures for a real estate transaction. Aoki was met by a young man and an older woman who failed to provide valid identification for herself and refused to sign her name in Aoki’s presence.

Suspecting something was seriously wrong, Aoki halted the notarization and left. A few months later, Aoki learned the two were the notorious mother-son con artist team, Sante and Kenneth Kimes. Both later were convicted of murdering Silverman to take over her home and estate.

Preventing document fraud is one of your most important responsibilities, and dishonest people will go to great lengths to try and trick Notaries. Here are some warning signs of fraud to watch for:

  • Asking you to notarize a signature for an absent person. Remember that personal appearance before the Notary is a fundamental rule of notarization. If someone asks you to bend the rules in order to notarize an absent person’s signature — don’t do it, no matter what reason they give. It’s possible someone is trying to scam the absent signer.
  • The photo or information on an ID doesn’t match the signer. Be careful if the photo on an ID doesn’t look like the signer — for example, the signer is much older or younger than the person in the picture, or their hair, eyes or features don’t match the ID.
  • The signer behaves oddly. Refusing to answer questions, being unwilling to remove sunglasses or a hat indoors, or other strange behavior could be a warning that the signer is trying to hide something. If signers behave suspiciously, don’t ignore it. If something seems off, it’s OK to ask questions or ask signers to provide additional credentials to confirm they are who they claim to be. If you have doubt about a signer’s claims that can’t be put to rest, don’t proceed with the notarization.

…but you also need to be wary when offered “treats”

It’s always nice to be appreciated, and sometimes a signer will offer a Notary a gift or gratuity as a way of saying thanks for a job well done. But be careful, because while some of these “treats” may seem harmless or simply generous, in some situations it may not be ethical or even legal to accept them.

Some “treats” are as simple as being offered a soda or snacks by a signer during a notarization. Because some cultures consider refusing an offer of food to be impolite, Jason Roffe, a Michigan signing agent, says he sometimes accepts pastries offered by signers. “I tend to take some to go as to not insult them.”

Louisiana Notary Suzanne Belletto encounters a similar culture in her area regarding food. “Down here, it’s an insult if you refuse their offer, because if they didn’t want you to have it, they wouldn’t offer,” she said, saying she’s been offered cookies, cakes, fruits and vegetables during notarizations.

However, things get more complicated when Notaries are offered more valuable gratuities than snacks. Some Notaries have been offered tickets to sporting events and theme parks, gift cards for coffee shops, and even cash “tips” ranging from $20 to $300 — and that’s where Notaries have to be careful. Many states limit the maximum fee that can be charged for a notarial act, so accepting any kind of “treat” could constitute a violation of state laws.

Even if no improper request is involved, accepting gifts other than the allowed notarization fee could hurt a Notary’s reputation and business in the long run. Florida signing agent Marie Rambaran said she was offered a tip by a signer during a loan signing assignment. When the company she was working for found out she was offered a tip, the company told her it was unacceptable, refused to pay her full fee for the assignment and stopped contacting her for loan signings. Since then, she’s made it her policy to never accept tips. “People always offer me something, but now I just refuse to take it,” she said.

If you’re offered a tip, gratuity or other treat, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do my state Notary laws say about this? If the gift’s value exceeds the maximum fee you’re allowed to charge for notarizations, or could violate other statutory limits on payment for services, it’s safer to say, “No thank you.”
  • For signing agents, does this violate federal law? Under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, a tip potentially could be viewed as double-charging the signer. Any complaint could result in serious consequences for the company that hired you. It also could be a violation of your contract with that company. If offered a tip, instead of accepting it, ask the signer to give you good marks on any post-closing survey.
  • Is it ethical for me to accept this? Even if the law doesn’t specifically prohibit accepting a gift, it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid the appearance of unethical conduct.

David Thun is the Assistant Managing Editor with the National Notary Association. 

Additional Resources:

State Law Summaries

View All: Best Practices

1 Comment

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B Yolanda O'Brien

27 Oct 2015

Whenever I'm offered a tip. I always say no thank you I can't accept a tip but please feel free to donate it to your favorite charity.

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