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Safe Spaces, Dangerous Places For Meeting Customers

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(Originally published in the January 2020 issue of The National Notary magazine.)

Brian Keithley stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall, but he still doesn’t take any chances with his safety. The former corrections officer and mobile Notary knows that size doesn’t guarantee a Notary’s wellbeing. Keithley was once asked to visit a hospital to notarize documents related to the sale of an elderly mother’s home.

He suspected elder abuse when the mother appeared to have no idea what was happening. When he tried to leave the room, family members attempted to physically force him back. He had to call hospital security for help.

Mobile Notaries face a certain degree of risk that comes with the job — they must be available to respond to assignments at all hours of the day and night, and they must find a meeting place that’s convenient for the client regardless of the hour. This can be difficult, especially for Notaries who live in rural places without a well-lit, 24-hour restaurant or coffee shop nearby. 

Notaries and safety experts agree you must never take your personal and professional safety for granted, no matter what size you are, the physical shape you’re in or even if you have military or police training. However, there are ways to balance the need to be accommodating — in an industry where prompt responses to clients and willingness to travel at any time win the day — with an awareness that meeting strangers in strange locations carries inherent risk.

The National Notary recently asked Notaries on Facebook to share what they consider to be safe meeting places and what they consider to be dangerous signing locations. Dozens of Notaries shared their insights into their safety practices and the limits they place on where and when they’ll travel.

Notaries Have To Be Smart

For many mobile Notaries, keeping in touch with someone you trust while on assignment is crucial to staying safe. Keithley has a safety plan in place where he’ll send a text to his wife with the location of the signing and the approximate time he’ll be gone, and if she doesn’t hear from him within 45 minutes of that time, she’ll call him. He has certain distress words he can use to alert her if he’s in danger.

“I’m 6 foot 7 inches, an Army veteran, and trained in law enforcement, and I know I can still get in trouble,” Keithley said. “If someone wants to get stupid, they’re not going to care (about my size). People don’t understand that just because you’re a guy, big doesn’t always defend you. You have to be smart.”

He once took a call at 1 a.m., but still insisted on finding a safe, well-lit location to conduct the notarization. He ended up meeting his client at the entrance to a Walmart, so there were people still coming in and out of the building, and security cameras were also in place.

Other safe places that Notaries on Facebook mentioned using include restaurants, such as Subway and Panera Bread, or coffee shops such as Starbucks which have multiple locations in most towns. Other safe meeting places suggested were police stations, churches, post offices, banks and a friend’s office.

Another Notary mentioned using a shopping mall atrium, though she noted this location also comes with a lack of privacy. Others echoed the difficulty of finding safe places that are also private. Keithley said he likes meeting at a local library if privacy is needed. He can reserve a room with glass windows and a door and it’s free.

Most of the Notaries responding to the Facebook survey mentioned signer’s homes as the most potentially dangerous places they visited, but they also listed dark spaces such as a park at night, or even the side of the road. One Notary performed a signing on the hood of a car at night with a flashlight — a risky situation, considering the chances of getting hit by a passing vehicle. Keithley won’t go to parks in the evening and has a habit of checking out a neighborhood prior to the signing to get a feel for things.

When going to an unfamiliar signer’s home, Notaries described different strategies for mitigating risk. One Notary said she won’t go inside a home if she feels unsafe, so she’ll conduct the notarization in the doorway. Others recommended taking note of people drinking alcohol and whether the signer appears rushed or irritable, mention they are expecting someone else to arrive, or are in the middle of other activities that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Notaries Have To Have Heightened Awareness

David Fowler, who founded a personal safety training company and who specializes in teaching safety to workers who travel to client’s homes, emphasized cultivating awareness as a Notary’s best defense.

“Everything goes to awareness,” he said. “In an environment you’re not aware of, you have to have heightened awareness and be vigilant.”

Fowler’s training class, called AVADE (Awareness, Vigilance, Avoidance, Defense and Escape) teaches participants to use their powers of perception to spot risk and then take appropriate steps to handle the situation.

The safety process begins ahead of time, he said. When you park at the client’s home, park facing the same direction you came from. The route you used on the way there will be familiar, so if you need to make a hasty escape, you won’t get lost going a different way or have to backtrack to the signer’s home to get your bearings.

He also recommends telling the client right off the bat that you’re expecting a phone call — for example, you can tell the signer a relative may need to speak with you urgently — and if you get it, you’ll have to step outside and take it. That way, you have a built-in, plausible reason to leave if you need it. He also said to position yourself close to an exit in the home and take note of any objects, or people, who may block a hasty exit.

He said Notaries should look at a clients’ body language to help them determine threat risk: “When people have intentions, they more than likely will express them nonverbally. According to the science of communication, (people) communicate nonverbally more than any other way,” he said. “If a person is getting too close, or positioning, like cutting off a potential escape route … those are all red-flag intentions that something isn’t right.”

Fowler said the number one thing people get wrong about personal safety is denial. “We deny the fact that people can have bad intentions towards us, which costs us time,” he said. “We really want to give people the benefit of the doubt; our hearts are good — it's hard to imagine, ‘why would someone hurt me’? You have to take a step back and say, overall, people are good, but there are some bad apples in the barrel, and if we deny that, we miss the triggers, the signs and symptoms. It costs us time and distance, and time and distance always equal safety.”

 

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