Your Cookies are Disabled! sets cookies on your computer to help improve performance and provide a more engaging user experience. By using this site, you accept the terms of our cookie policy. Learn more.

Real Estate Fraud: Notaries At Risk

Bulletin-March-Mag-Cover-450x300.jpg(Originally published in the March 2019 issue of The National Notary magazine.)

Imagine getting a visit from a local police investigator with questions about real estate documents you notarized a year ago. It turns out the documents were part of a fraud scheme, and the notarization is coming under scrutiny.

It happens more often than you might think.

In December 2018, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office released a grand jury report noting that law enforcement authorities in New York City had received 2,000 complaints of deed fraud in the previous four years. Virtually every case of fraud involved a “faulty” notarization. The fraud problem is so serious that the grand jury called it an “epidemic.”

New York City is not alone. A recent article posted on described real estate fraud as an “especially virulent problem.” Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit, among other cities, have been plagued with similar waves of deed fraud. California, Florida and Nevada are among the states hardest hit by mortgage fraud, which often involves a bad notarization.

“This is an everywhere problem,” said Kim McPartland, a Claims Examiner for Merchants Bonding Company. “Getting caught up in a fraud scheme could happen to any Notary anywhere in America.”

In rare instances, the Notary is a willing participant in the fraud. In most cases they are unwitting participants who are tricked by the fraudsters. In other instances, the Notary plays no part at all. Instead, scammers forge the Notary’s signature and seal.

“This report really gives Notaries inspiration to do good in their role as public officers,” said Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Gilda Mariani, who worked with the grand jury. “Notaries are unsung sentinels. By performing their duties carefully, they can prevent a lot of this fraud.”

Criminal Tactics That Put Notaries At Risk

For honest Notaries who are not active participants in frauds scams, there are two key risks.

First, criminals try to trick you into not performing your duties. That typically involves trying to get you to notarize the documents without the signer being present or accepting the bogus ID of an impostor standing in for the property owner.

There are all sorts of strategies to charm, distract, confuse or pressure someone that fraudsters use to trick Notaries into skipping a vital step.

“I’ve seen people try all kinds of tricks,” McPartland said. “‘This is my dad’s ID, but he can’t come into sign because he’s sick.’ Things like that.”

The grand jury report noted cases in which the Notary was duped by someone regarded as a respectable member of the community, such as an attorney or a police officer.

Most states do not require any education to become a Notary, and those that do focus on the law and what a Notary’s duties are rather than how to perform those duties and follow best practices.

Even more disturbing is the second risk: Criminals forging a real Notary’s signature and seal on fraudulent documents.

“Perpetrators have lifted valid Notary commission information from public documents and used it to purchase a phony Notary Public seal,” the grand jury report explained. In fact, an undercover law enforcement officer easily was able to purchase a fake New York Notary seal from an out-of-state online vendor.

Some forged documents don’t come to light for a decade or more. That’s because many of the victims are seniors or seriously ill or are heirs of deceased homeowners. As such, they may not uncover the fraud immediately. In the case of fraud against a family member, it often is not discovered until the property owner dies and the heirs realize their inheritance is gone.

Once the fraud comes to light, the Notary can become ensnared in a legal mess along with the victim, who is desperately trying to recoup their property and any other damages suffered. Notaries who unwittingly performed a faulty notarization could face stiff fines, civil judgments and risk the suspension or loss of their commissions along with other legal consequences. Notaries who had their seals and signatures forged may still be burdened with time, grief and legal costs to prove they did not perform the fraudulent notarization.

How The Real Estate Fraud Works

It is remarkably easy to commit real estate fraud. That was starkly illustrated in 2008 when a reporter for the New York Daily News “stole” the Empire State Building by submitting bogus documents to transfer ownership of the building to the City Register’s office. The transfer was duly recorded, and the title was transferred — a process that took 90 minutes.

The paperwork included the signatures of fictitious people and a fake notarization. Today, real estate fraud remains just as easy. “It can take as little as a forged deed to transfer ownership of real property,” the grand jury report noted. “It is extremely challenging, and sometimes impossible, to undo a fraudulent transfer.”

Many frauds are committed by the relative or caregiver of a property owner. “A lot of the cases I see involve family disputes,” said McPartland, who handles Notary claims for Merchants nationwide.

There are cases of children taking the property of their parents, individuals trying to co-opt inheritances from their siblings and people trying cheat their spouses.

In any case, the scammers create bogus documents — including fraudulent or improper notarizations — to transfer ownership and then head to the nearest property recording office. The notarization is crucial. “If the documents had not been notarized, the City Register’s office wouldn’t have accepted them,” Mariani said.

Once the title is transferred, the swindlers take out a mortgage, sell the property or sometimes even rent it.

Notary Recommendations To Stop Real Estate Fraud

The grand jury report recommended a host of significant reforms, and top on the list was a series of sweeping changes to the state’s Notary laws. They included such things as mandatory education for all Notary applicants — new and renewing; a requirement for Notaries to keep a journal; a requirement for Notaries to obtain a bond and more. The recommendations specifically address New York state’s Notary laws and don’t apply to the rest of the country. But many of the recommendations could apply to other states.

The most important thing Notaries can do is educate themselves. That knowledge can include such things as how to attach a separate notarial certificate to a document, where to place your Notary seal, how to screen signers for willingness and awareness and how to check a signer’s ID.

The next thing Notaries should do is maintain a Notary journal in which they record the details of every notarization when it happens. The grand jury described the journal as “the most important tool of the Notary Public’s trade.”

“Your best defense is an impeccable journal,” McPartland said. “Put in more information rather than less.”

A well-kept journal shows your diligence and demonstrates that you exercised reasonable care whenever you performed a notarization. It also corroborates the integrity of each notarization, helps establish the identity of your signers and can refresh your memory months or years later

This is particularly helpful when your Notary identity is stolen. Without a well-maintained journal, it might be far more difficult to prove that you didn’t perform the fraudulent notarization.

Journal entries also can help law enforcement catch scammers. Such was the case of one New York City Notary who voluntarily kept a journal, according to the grand jury report. “However, the absence of a journal, or any type of recordkeeping, made it difficult, and in some instances impossible, to identify the culprits and their accomplices.”

Underlying the grand jury report and discussions with experts is the simple notion that the best protection for others and yourself from fraud is doing your job the right way every time. That means requiring every signer to appear before you at the time of the notarization; taking care to check their IDs; and keeping a detailed record of every notarization.

As the grand jury report noted, “The Notary Public, one of the oldest continuing professions, is the first line of defense for combating real estate deed fraud.”

Michael Lewis is Managing Editor of member publications for the National Notary Association.

View All: Best Practices


Add your comment

A. Caccavari

08 Apr 2019

Thanks for the sharing the information. In Cook County we used a Notarial Record that requires a thumb print, signature and to record the individuals ID information. We use this in a addition to the journal. The county requires this and is helpful.

National Notary Association

09 Apr 2019

Hello and thank you. Just to keep you updated, the Cook County pilot program requiring a journal thumbprint for certain real property notarizations ended June 30, 2018. While we still recommend that Illinois Notaries voluntarily keep a journal of their notarizations, the Cook County journal thumbprint requirement is no longer mandatory.

Michelle Brooks

16 Apr 2019

I recently had a gal come into my office (I'm an escrow officer) with a deed that had my notary signature & seal on it. It was not my signature and I checked my notary journal and I never notarized it. The document she had was a copy only and doesn't appear to have been recorded and appears to have been in with bankruptcy papers. Do I need to report this to the Secretary of State?

National Notary Association

17 Apr 2019

Hello. Yes, you should notify your state Notary-regulating office and law enforcement that your seal and signature appear to have been counterfeited.

Kenneth Penning

06 Jul 2019

How does one make sure a Notary Lawyer in Mexico is legit and real? Checking on Ana Maria Arrello. Can you help? I am sending wire transfer to her to SAT and Profeco.

National Notary Association

23 Jul 2019

Hello. Unfortunately, we cannot assist with verifying the status of Notaries or attorneys in foreign countries.

Stephen E Swetz

09 Oct 2019

While I just read this article about Notaries and Real Estate Fraud, it is to me extremely rich that the NNA would put out an article regarding Real Estate Fraud and Notaries, and still support Remote Online Notarization. There will be more, not less Real Estate Fraud once the fraudsters & the tricksters figure out that there is no longer a physical appearance requirement with a Notary. Its too bad the NNA is not on the side of the Notaries it purports to support, but rather is on the side of the large Title Companies and Mortgage Lenders. We are the true last line of defense against fraud, but that line of defense will be weakened!


19 Nov 2019

Why is it that nobody has practically ...

Venice McNair

12 May 2020

What is the penalty for Notary fraud in Florida?

National Notary Association

12 May 2020

Hello. You can find information on penalties for some types of Notary misconduct in Florida here:

Darryl Jones

25 Mar 2021

Hello, person of notary forge my name to another person,without me been there.I sent forge documents to secretary of state.In my real documents to them.

barb morgan

11 May 2022

my siblings used notary fraud to take our parents land and money. I hired lawyers,contacted DOJ, talked to local authorities, I cant count the people and agencies I went to for help. When it is between families no one cares and if the notory system was bad it would be changed. It must be bennefiting someone. this is all kinds of wire fraud, forgery, identity theft, and illegal at best.

Leesa lakely

22 Oct 2022

Barb Morgan, I’m 8n the same boat, the worse part is the attorney was in on it, he allowed my sibling to do what she wanted and she had a quit claim deed signed giving my share away, of the home we owned in equal shares to mom, then attorney put it in a living trust and she named herself sole successor. Attorney said he mailed me the quit claim deed I had it signed and notarized and mailed it back. I passed by his office daily, why didn’t he attempt to speak to me about it and who in their right mind would get a deed in the mail sign it and send it to some random attorney without explanation? Also, I had an executive secretary that is a notary, I’d use her if I needed something notarized, It gets better, the notary, who only served one term was siblings nail tech, she’s still a nail tech, and the witness was also an acquaintance of siblings! Cannot make this shit up. Oh and he died at age 46 a few weeks before the forced sale of the home. He was a grifter, yes, n6 sibling is trash and keeps company with these types of people. Hillsborough County Sheriffs office says it’s civil, I’m furious. Obviously I didn’t find this out until mom passed sister hid everything even from our mother, it is a crazy situation. This is in Florida btw..

M a r c

15 Apr 2023

I believe that there was fraud in a notary not by the notary but by the family we wanted to check the fingerprint and signature if I request this from a notary a fingerprint and the signature of my father I live in California do they have to give me this or do I have to subpean it

National Notary Association

18 Apr 2023

Hello. You would need to make a written request to the Notary for copies of the relevant journal entries. The written request should include the name of the parties, the type of document, and the month and year in which the notarization took place.

Catherine Sea OMalley

01 May 2024

My home was foreclosed on and what I noticed in the documents all the notaries and signatures were done in another state and in another county also I noticed the bank in the process of doing the foreclosure sold the loan to fast Cash house buyers and then it was fast cash house buyers who forced me out of the house by having a police standoff down the street against a single mother and two children so the bank got paid but I didn't get anything out of it the other thing I noticed as well after looking at the banking activity statements it shows very clearly that there were payments that were being made to the bank directly but they never applied the payments is this a normal practice?

National Notary Association

06 May 2024

Hello. Typically a notarization must be performed with the signer present. If you suspect someone notarized your signature without your knowledge or presence, you should contact law enforcement to report possible fraud.

Leave a Comment

Required *

All comments are reviewed and if approved, will display.