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Notaries in the 21st Century: How to navigate the digital age

With the growing evolution of online signings, data security and a host of technological tools, today's Notaries need skill sets that were unknown just a decade ago. But for those who keep up with the times and stick to best practices, the 21st century is a good time to be a Notary.

In the past, Notaries were strictly old school — to succeed, all they needed to know was how to affix a seal, fill out a certificate and write an entry in a journal, using paper and ink. 2020 turned this traditional approach of the Notary upside-down.

COVID-19 forced Notaries to rapidly adjust to a new paradigm of remote notarization and online communication — and Notaries rose to the challenge, learning how to use eSeals, electronic journals and remote online communication platforms to perform notarizations for signers who could not meet Notaries face-to-face due to COVID concerns.

Notaries in 2021 have risen to new challenges and developed new technology skill sets in response to the ever-changing demands of their industry. To be successful, today's Notary must understand and adapt the traditional requirements for proper notarizations to new online communication and privacy technology and practice appropriate digital privacy standards.

We spoke with Notaries who shared how they have successfully stayed focused on best practices while they adapted to new approaches for notarizing and recordkeeping, and about their experiences with new technology such as remote online notarization (RON).

Sticking to the basics is still important

COVID-19 has certainly made the traditional role of a Notary more challenging, and that isn't likely to change any time soon. For example, Notaries who take up remote notarizations have to adjust to relying on new high-tech methods to identify signers such as knowledge-based authentication (KBA), where an online signer confirms their identity by answering a set of personal questions. This required many Notaries to adjust their approach to notarizations.

While he has handled several online notarizations, Harding Goodman, owner of TCSL Services in Conroe, Texas, says they can be tricky to master because the various remote notarization platforms work differently from each other. "Every platform adheres to state requirements, but the tools vary a lot," he says. "I wish there was a standardized process and toolset."

However, there is one standard common to all remote notarizations, regardless of how they are performed: It's still essential to stick to sound ethics and best practices, whether a notarization is remote or in-person.

"Nothing has really changed. We're the gatekeepers helping to protect against fraud," observes Sharnise Sears, a Notary of 13 years and owner of Cleveland Pro Enterprises in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sears, who performs remote notarizations for customers, has experienced firsthand how Notary fundamentals can be put to the test. While communicating with a signer during a recent online notarization, Sears learned that the signer — who had claimed to be located in Ohio — was actually in a different state, but had falsely listed an Ohio address on the document.

Woman with glasses waving at a computer screenSears only had one option. "He wasn't truthful, so I didn't move forward with the notarization," she says.

Sears adds that her experience applying sound, essential Notary practices has helped her identify other situations when a signer was "trying to pull a fast one."

No matter if it's a remote or a face-to-face notarization, Sears says she sticks to one of the most important fundamentals. "What's important for any Notary is that you have to feel comfortable asking questions," she says. For example, when performing remote notarizations, Sears always asks the signer "Is there anyone else in the room with you?" — even if the signer appears alone — to help her confirm there is no coercion taking place.

Make sure any technology you use is secure — and that private information stays private

Today, many states allow Notaries to keep records of their notarizations electronically on computers. In the case of RONs, some states allow Notaries to contract with a data depository —a third-party company that securely maintains electronic records — so the Notary doesn't have to personally store large amounts of electronic data. And many Notaries must share sensitive documents and messages with customers via email and other online communication channels. With a major data breach or ransomware attack occurring nearly every week, today's Notaries need to be vigilant in protecting their valuable client information.

Not every state requires a Notary to keep a journal, but Notaries that do either because of state requirements or personal preference need to practice additional caution, particularly if they keep an electronic journal.

As a New York State Notary, Michael Gilman is not required to keep a journal, but he does anyway and takes extra precautions to ensure his electronic journal cannot be hacked or illegally accessed. To complete his electronic journal entries, he collects the signer's information, scans it, and uploads it onto a computer that is both password-protected and not connected to the Internet. He does not take photographs of personal documents with a camera phone.

His secure electronic journal provides clear records that he saw, personally identified, and proofed the signer's ID. "There's no question why I did what I did," he says.

Likewise, Sears is extremely cautious with her electronic Notary records on a day-to-day basis. The computer she uses for her Notary business is only for her business. She regularly updates her passwords and periodically cleans the computer of unneeded documents. She also uses virus scan software to make sure the documents that are coming to her are clean.

Man with headset and glasses rests chin on handTo protect his clients from hackers and malware, Brian Gaughan, owner of The Celtic Closers in Cleveland, Ohio, has a personal safety policy — if an email from a title company he hasn't heard from, he'll delete the message without opening it.

For Notaries authorized to perform remote notarizations, the following steps will protect your commission and your clients, including:

Practice 1: Make sure any remote notarization platform you use complies with your state's laws before you sign on to use them.

Practice 2: During a RON, be alert if someone else is in the background. As with a face-to-face notarization, it could be possible that a signer is being coerced. But that may be difficult to determine since you won't be in the same space as the signer. Determine who is with the signer or if there are any telltale signs of coercion. And, as Sears wisely recommends, ask the signer questions throughout the process. Ask the signer to "pan" the room they are sitting in with the camera of the device they are using to connect with you.

Practice 3: If you perform remote or other electronic notarizations, don't share the image or information about your electronic seal online. A savvy criminal could download it and use it for fraudulent purposes. Most state laws require a Notary who performs remote notarizations to ensure that their electronic seal is secure from the use by anyone else.

With new technology, such as RON, Notaries also need to be patient with customers. Sears recounts that her first notarization took hours and hours to complete because the signers weren't computer savvy. She had to patiently walk them through the technological issues in order to successfully complete the notarization.

Tools of the 21st-century trade

Sticking to the fundamentals, staying up on evolving Notary technology and protecting clients' privacy. These are all necessary practices for a successful 21st-century Notary.

But what tools does a modern Notary need to succeed in today's business environment?

Goodman suggests that Notaries should have the following:

  • A good printer (or two). Many Notaries and Signing Agents recommend looking for printers with dual tray capability, fast printing speed and quality, and multifunction capability so your printer can also serve as a scanner and fax machine.
  • A reliable computer or laptop with enough storage (many modern computers start with 2 terabytes).
  • A backup drive to regularly save your important files and prevent them from being accidentally lost or destroyed.
  • Cloud backup (Cloud backup can provide a safety net if a Notary's personal devices are damaged or erased. However, a Notary must also consider if there is a risk that a cloud backup service could be compromised. Some paid cloud backup services offer stronger security and redundancy.).
  • Top-of-the-line internet service, particularly if you plan to apply to perform remote notarizations in your state.
  • Knowledge of how the main RON platforms operate.

Knowledge is perhaps the most important for the 21st-century Notary, considering how quickly technology related to notarizations is evolving. Brian Gaughan, owner of The Celtic Closers in Cleveland, Ohio, said that he reinvests in himself each year, taking a Notary course from one of the several Notary training providers (including the NNA).

"We have to adapt to the world we live in."

For Wilfred Rivera, a Notary who works in Port Ritchie, Fla., today's advanced digital tools have made things "a lot easier."

A Notary for 10 years, he says that he enjoys the face-to-face aspect of being a Notary, putting people at ease when they may feel like they're signing their lives away. "I like to meet people and deal with people," he says.

And while he prefers the traditional way of doing things, paying bills at the bank, meeting signers in person, he acknowledges the overriding reality of today's digital times. "We have to adapt to the world we live in," he says.

Goodman has adapted, but he's still a traditionalist at heart and makes a strong case for the old ways while embracing the new.

"I guess I'm an old-timer. I really think in-person signings are critical for the industry," he says. "Sitting down, looking someone in the eyes, getting to know them better, get a real feel for the document you're notarizing, I think the old ways are still here and will stay with us a long time."

As these Notaries show, the old and the new can coexist in harmony, despite the challenges new technology brings.

Related Articles:

How to prevent fraud as a Remote Online Notary

Remote Notarization Vs. Traditional Notarization (Infographic)


Add your comment

Mary carbajal

23 Aug 2021

When will CA allow remote notarizing.

Anna Jordan

30 Aug 2021

Really great article. I am waiting on my State license to arrive so that I may offer RON's to my clients, so this was very informative. Thanks!

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