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Identifying Signers: A Notary’s greatest challenge

Updated 1-23-24. “Can I accept this ID?” “My signer doesn’t look like the photo on her ID.” “What if the ID is expired?” Of all the questions Notaries ask the National Notary Association, the most common involve issues with verifying signers’ identities.

Compared to other tasks Notaries perform, verifying a signer’s identity is the most important, and arguably the most challenging. There are myriad variations of IDs and differing methods of verifying identity. And Notaries must always exercise a high-level of judgment before proceeding.

Every state and U.S. territory issues driver’s licenses and ID cards. In addition, there are inmate IDs, tribal IDs and identity cards issued by federal agencies, as well as the identity cards and passports issued by every country in the world.

What if the ID is issued by a county government? What if the passport is in a foreign language? What if you encounter a driver’s license marked with the words, “Federal Limits Apply” or “Permits Driving Only. Not for ID Purposes”? These issues and more constantly come up in the Notary community. And even if a signer has what appears to be a valid ID, how do you know it’s real?

face-matching research survey involving more than 1,150 Notaries found that they failed to spot imposters about 28 percent of the time. And about 20 percent of the time, the survey-takers thought people were imposters when they were not. Given all this, verifying the identity of signers is far more challenging than simply asking to see their ID. Yet the point of a notarization is for you to certify that your signers are who they say they are. By understanding the different challenges, you will be in a much better position to protect the signer, the public and yourself.

Is the ID fake or real? 

Fake IDs are becoming more sophisticated and harder to spot because sophisticated computers and printers used to create fakes are cheaper and more accessible. In Connecticut, so many fake IDs were coming into the state that some grocery stores started asking customers buying alcohol for backup identification, according to media reports.

Notaries should be familiar with the IDs issued by their state, and may wish to keep an ID verification book available that includes descriptions and sample images of driver’s licenses and ID cards issued by other states, the federal government and foreign countries.

To spot a fake ID, look for the right security features; it is important to know what features your state uses on common forms of ID such as driver's licenses. Compare the photo and description with your signer. You can ask questions to see if the bearer can correctly provide information such as their date of birth, or ask for the name of a major cross street at their address.

Are you an imposter?

Perhaps the hardest task in checking a person’s identity is matching the ID photo to the person in front of you. “It’s incredibly difficult to match a face to a photo ID,” said Megan Papesh, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at New Mexico State University, who conducted the face-matching survey mentioned above.

Dr. Papesh noted that cross-cultural differences are particularly challenging. People have a much harder time accurately identifying individuals from another culture or race. As imperfect as matching faces to ID photos is, she 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 such as hair and weight can change, so Dr. 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. Examine the nose line or general size and shape of the chin. The distance between the nose, mouth and chin also can be revealing. But don’t just stick to one set of features. “What works when checking some individuals will not work for others,” Dr. Papesh said. “It’s a good idea to check a few features without getting tripped up by hair, weight and skin shade.”

The ‘reasonable person’ standard

To some, it may seem as though Notaries are expected to be experts at verifying identities. In fact, given the sheer mass of identity-related issues in the world, it might seem that you have to be experts to carry out your duties. But that’s not the case. For the most part, Notaries are expected to take the same steps that a reasonable person would take in performing their duties, including verifying signers’ identities.

“Verifying identity is not an exact science,” said Bill Anderson, the NNA’s Vice President of Government Affairs. “This is an area where the Notary needs to exercise the most judgment.” Notaries can compare a signer to the ID photo and the physical description. They can compare the signature on the ID to that on the document. But it is still a judgment call.

Because there are so many potential gray areas, Anderson emphasized the need to take reasonable steps when making a judgment. He recommended an identity-vetting protocol for Notaries incorporating three best practices:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 verification book handy for out-of-state IDs.
  3. 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. “By following these steps you can clearly explain your method of reasonably verifying signers’ identity,” he said.

Dr. Papesh offered another suggestion 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.”

View All: Best Practices


Add your comment

Phyllis Foerster

04 Apr 2016

I never saw the answer about what to do if the ID/Driver's License is expired.


04 Apr 2016

Hi Phyllis! Perhaps this article the NNA previously published will help:

C. Tulipana

05 Apr 2016

In most states if I.D. is expired, it is not VALID so you cannot accept it.

Teresa Gyure

23 Sep 2019

Yet another article to show that remote online notarizations(RON) should not be done.

karen Johnson

23 Sep 2019

Is an ID always mandatory for a document to be notarized? I am in Minnesota and not finding a direct answer.

National Notary Association

23 Sep 2019

Hello. It would depend on the type of notarization being requested. For acknowledgments, verifications upon oath/affirmation or signature witnessings, a MN Notary must verify the identity of the signer through personal knowledge or satisfactory proof of identity (MS 358.55). However, certifying a copy of a document does not require you to verify the identity of the document holder.

Betty Dedman

23 Sep 2019

First, when you confirm the signing make SURE that the signer's realize that their government issued photo ID needs to be current. If you are concerned about this, share your concern with your vendor/lender/title company, whoEVER hired you so that they know about this before the package arrives back with a surprise expired ID. It tell ALL signers when I call to expect to show me 2 ID's and get them ready. I tell them it's better than rifling through drawers at the signing looking for them, but it also helps against fraud, which IS OUR PRIME RESPONSIBILITY. I use my phone for copies, give back the ID's (so none end up going home with my in my briefcase) and use the photo to copy their ID information on documents and in my journal. This Also gives me an opportunity to take a good look at their signature. Once I considered what I would do if only one set of initials was missing after I left. I had my DH write his initials on a piece of paper and I tried to copy them. It is VERY HARD to duplicate somebody else's signature/initials bc people tend to sweep with a pen when they write. If you slow down it just doesn't look the same. Re: expired ID's, don't be surprised if the company you are working for accepts an expired ID. I once witnessed a purchase signing and this guy was paying cash and the only ID he wanted to show me was expired. The seller wanted the money and the real estate office was happy, there was no lender and everyone was happy. His signature matched that on his ID, so who was I to complain? After all, I have identified signers with State ID's whose expiration was 99-99-99. The only time I cancelled my participation was when a borrower kept assuring me that his new and 2nd wife would Have a new driver's license before the signing, researched and found that she lived 4 miles away from a DMV, and for up to 4 days before the signing and the day before the signing, she STILL hadn't gotten a new license. It smelled fishy to me and I didn't want to be involved in that signing.

Lucy Park Newton

31 May 2021

This is identification business is further complicated by the new remote notarization, where you can't hold the identification in your hand; you can only depend on the accuracy of the electronic devices being used. I plan to require 2 forms of identification and hope that a passport is one of them.

rick wessell

31 May 2021

On a valid California Drivers License, the holders signature at the bottom is slightly raised. Just rub your thumb over it.


02 May 2022

What is the signer is transgender but have not changed their picture on the ID. Would the ID be acceptable?

National Notary Association

10 May 2022

Hello. To help us answer your question, can you please tell us what state you are commissioned in?

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