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Notary Bulletin

Loose Notary Seals Sink Deals

seal-storage-resized.jpgUpdated 11-13-20. The Notary seal is critical for every notarization. Together with the Notary’s signature, the seal authenticates the notarization and makes the notarized document recordable in land records, admissible as evidence in legal proceedings and acceptable when sent to other states and territories.

Hence, a fraudster would like nothing more than to obtain an authentic Notary seal to help in forging notarizations and carrying out document fraud.

We Notary educators talk a great deal about Notary seal security, and experienced Notaries have probably heard us many times before. But it’s worth repeating, because Notary seals keep getting stolen. Sometimes it’s because Notaries neglect to protect their seals, and sometimes it’s because an old seal was not disposed of properly. But whatever the reason, when criminals get their hands on a genuine Notary seal, forged notarizations are always the result.

Recently a North Carolina lawyer took his legal assistant’s Notary seal from her unlocked desk while she was away from the office. This law-breaking attorney then forged a notarization by signing his assistant’s name and affixing her seal on a document, and then returning the seal to her desk — all without her knowledge. Unfortunately, there are other attorneys, employers and co-workers who try to cheat the Notary system by “borrowing” seals and engaging in this kind of misconduct. Unless you take steps to protect your seal, anyone — even a family member, friend, boss or co-worker — could take it and misuse it.

During World War II, information secrecy and security was important to Allied success. Spies used information picked up in casual conversations to help guide enemy attacks, so the public was often warned, “Loose lips sink ships.” Today, we are in a war against document fraud, so it is crucial to prevent false notarizations. So the mantra could be, “Loose Notary seals sink deals.” In other words, Notaries who carelessly allow their seals to be pilfered and misused may be liable for financial losses involving their stolen Notary tools.

Avoiding Negligence

Too many Notaries leave their seals unattended and lying openly around their work spaces, with no safeguards against unauthorized use or theft. In an Illinois case in which I testified as an expert witness, a Notary who worked in a busy office regularly left his Notary seal in an unlocked drawer of a desk that was shared by several co-workers. Lots of people could have taken the seal and used it to falsify notarizations.

If a Notary negligently allows their seal to be borrowed or stolen, or improperly gives away or sells an expired seal that is later used to forge notarizations, they are legally liable for any financial injuries resulting from the forgery. The key word in the liability rule is “negligently,” so here are some tips on how to protect yourself from liability.

Protecting Your Seal

First and foremost, always follow your state’s requirements, and use reasonable care to protect the security of the Notary seal. If you have taken precautions against theft of your seal, but a skillful fraudster still manages to take it, you are much less likely to be held liable than if you carelessly left it out in the open.

Remember, your seal belongs exclusively to you. Your name appears on its image. You should never allow anyone else to possess or even to handle your seal. This is true even if your employer paid for the commission, and you leave the job before your Notary commission expires.

Secure the seal at all times. When you are not using it (such as between notarizations), either keep it in your immediate possession or store it under lock and key under your exclusive control (in fact, this is required by law for California Notaries).

For instance, you might lock the seal in a desk drawer, file cabinet, safe, lockbox, or room — provided no one else has a key to the storage space. Simply leaving a seal on your desk in a locked office, won’t protect the seal if someone else has a pass key for the office. In that circumstance, a court might perceive that you have not used reasonable care. You could be held liable if the seal is taken and used to commit document fraud which injures somebody.

If you travel to a notarization appointment, don’t leave the seal out in plain view in your vehicle where a potential thief might see it. Instead, lock the seal in the glove compartment, and be sure to lock the car too.

Incidentally, the same precautions apply when protecting your Notary journal. The seal and journal could and probably should be kept together; it is considered a best practice always to have both tools with you when performing a notarization.

Do Not Sell Or Give Away Current Or Expired Seals

When you decide to stop being a Notary, or if your Notary commission expires, the old seal should be destroyed or defaced to render it unusable. Even an expired seal can be quite valuable to a fraudster who wants to backdate a document and forge a notarization.

Unfortunately, current and expired Notary seals are often found at garage sales, thrift stores, flea markets, antique shops and through online sites. Never sell, give away or carelessly discard working seals. Here, too, you could be held liable for not exercising reasonable care to protect the security of an old seal, which was then used to commit fraud.

Conclusion — Don’t Let ‘Loose Seals Sink Deals’

Hopefully, I have said enough to scare you a little about potential liability to alert you to the importance of Notary seal security. But hopefully I have also explained the basic precautions you can easily take to guard your seal from misuse and protect yourself from legal liability. Remember: Loose seals sink deals.

Michael Closen is Professor Emeritus at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois. A respected consultant on model Notary statutes and legislation, Closen served on the drafting committees for The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility and various editions of the Model Notary Act, and recently authored the book, Professor Closen’s Notary Best Practices: Expert's Guide to Notarization of Documents

View All: Best Practices

13 Comments

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Naomi Leaman

11 Nov 2019

I have searched the Florida statutes and cannot find definitive direction on what to do with an expired stamp. Destroy or return?

National Notary Association

12 Nov 2019

Hello. The Florida Governor's Reference Manual for Notaries instructs Notaries to destroy old notary public seals to prevent their misuse.

Sally Notary

11 Nov 2019

I am wondering if anyone knows the legal precedence in California for keeping a seal and journal in a safety deposit box at the bank. Most of us here can’t afford housing or offices under our exclusive control, so we have to go the ‘office safe’ route, but I am wondering if either a storage closet only I have access to, besides the storage company, or a safety deposit box at the bank would work. These have third parties involved, but almost everyone in California has third parties with keys to our offices and homes because no average notary can afford to own a million dollar space.

Mary

26 Nov 2019

Unbelievable that notaries...past and present are so careless. I protect my hairstylist tools better than some notaries with their seals. And my stuff cost hundreds of dollars to replace if lost or stolen. I can't imagine getting slapped with a lawsuit for thousands of dollars over a misused seal. Scary thought.

Lauren Lyons

26 Nov 2020

Now with eSign and RON what does the attorney or law recommend? Seems now its even easier for a seal to be comprised when you order an eSeal and so many services/companies offering to provide them now.

Cassandra Knight

01 Dec 2020

I love my job and I take it seriously. My Notary bag goes every where with me. If my car gets stolen and it has in my life time, at least my seal and journal are with me.

Catherine M Betts

01 Dec 2020

When I retired, had a big bonfire and melted my self-inking stamp down. My old metal embosser, destroyed the plate and then sold the rest of the metal for scrap.

jediforcejeremy@gmail.com

07 Dec 2020

What is the recommended best practice to both keep our tools safe and secure but also allow access to someone who may need to get them in the event of a Notary's death? Do we give a trusted individual a key or code to a lock box and just trust that they don't access the materials unless they need to in order to destroy a seal and turn the books over to the county clerk?

National Notary Association

15 Dec 2020

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

Mel Garcia

08 Dec 2020

To address Sally Notary's concern, I am a California Notary and I didn't have a place to lock my notary tools at work, so I didn't advertise NP services with my employer. But when my employer approached me about notarizing documents for the company on a regular basis, I informed them that I would be happy to, but that I would need a lock on my desk drawer or a locked cabinet under my exclusive control. They promptly changed my desk to one with a lock and gave me the keys. Sometimes all YOU have to do is educate your employer and ask for accommodations - simple.

Ivette Colin

13 Dec 2020

Thank you for the valuable lesson on seal safety. How do we protect our Digital seal now with RON?

jediforcejeremy@gmail.com

17 Dec 2020

I am in California - What is the recommended best practice to both keep our tools safe and secure but also allow access to someone who may need to get them in the event of a Notary's death? Do we give a trusted individual a key or code to a lock box and just trust that they don't access the materials unless they need to in order to destroy a seal and turn the books over to the county clerk?

National Notary Association

05 Jan 2021

California Government Code section 8206 reads “The journal shall be kept in a locked and secured area, under the direct and exclusive control of the notary”. California Government Code section 8209(b) reads: “In the case of the death of a notary public, the personal representative of the deceased shall promptly notify the Secretary of State of the death of the notary public and shall deliver all notarial records and papers of the deceased to the clerk of the county in which the Notary Public’s official oath of office is on file”. While the journal and seal have to be locked and secured, there is nothing in that law that indicates that a trusted representative of the Notary cannot know where the supplies are located. As such, it would be up to the individual Notary to let a representative know how to access the Notary supplies in the event of the Notary’s death or other incapacitation.

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