Forensic Document Examination Services
Thomas W. Vastrick is a Forensic Document Examiner with 42 years of experience. He has worked in both federal government law enforcement crime laboratories and in private practice. He is board-certified through technical testing by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners and is a member of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and the Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners. But what is a forensic document examiner and in what areas of forensic science are they trained?
Forensic Document Examination is a specialty field of the forensic sciences dealing with examinations involving areas such as signatures (forgery), handwriting, hand printing, alterations, counterfeiting, anonymous letters, indented writings, office machine product classification & identification, and ink & paper analyses. Below is a list of the areas within the discipline of forensic document examination along with a brief overview for the most prominent of them.
Alterations to documents
Anonymous letter examinations
Counterfeit document examinations
Indented writing examinations
Typewriter and printer examinations
Checkwriters, staple holes, staplers
Non-destructive ink and paper analyses
Signatures and Forgery
The term “forgery” is commonly understood to mean that one person is writing the signature of another person. Legally it is a bit more complicated than that but for simplicity purposes we will use the term “forgery” as it is commonly understood.
There are four types of forgery. The first type is a simple forgery. A simply forgery is written using the forger’s own normal, natural handwriting and will not resemble the writing of the alleged signor any more than two writings bear coincidental similarities. The advantage to this form of forgery is that the signature is written at a normal writing speed. When being signed in from of a person, such as a bank teller, there will be no outward red flags that something is amiss. The obvious disadvantage is that the forgery will not pass even a cursory level of scrutiny by anyone. Surprisingly, simple forgery signatures are a common form of forgery.
The second type of forgery is a simulated forgery or simulation. A simulated forgery is a freehand copying of another’ person’s writing. One can use a model signature from which to base their forgery or it can be designed from a mental image of the form. The writer of this forgery has a difficult decision to make. If they pay special attention to the details of the signature, the forgery will be written slowly and telltale signs of the slow execution will be noticeable to the trained forensic document examiner. Conversely, if the writer is concerned with a faster writing speed of execution they will not be able to include all of the intricate detail that goes into a signature and again the trained forensic document examiner will be able to detect those defects.
The third type of forgery is a traced forgery or tracing. As the name implies a traced forgery is one that is literally traced. Commonly the result is a signature that is slowly written that will generally bear a strong resemblance to an actual genuine signature of the victim. Forensic document examiner are trained to note the features that result from attempts to trace a signature.
The final type of forgery is called both a cut-n-paste forgery or signature transfer. This type of forgery utilizes advances arising from digital technology from which a forger can scan a signature image from one document and transfer it to another with little or no physical evidence of the transfer. There are techniques available to the trained forensic document examiner from which the detection of the forgery can be determined.
Handwriting (Cursive) and Hand Printing
Beyond signatures, forensic document examiners are also called upon to conduct examinations of cursive writing and hand printing. Some of the more common handwriting requests include entries in ledgers and checkbooks, correspondences, anonymous letters and notes, ransom notes and robbery notes just to name a few. While cursive handwriting may be on the decline in schools, its presence is still felt in examinations on a regular basis and one should not consider this form of handwriting as a passing fad just yet.
A qualified forensic document examiner (or handwriting expert) is a trained expert at the examination of cursive handwriting and hand printing. Forensic document examiners have many valuable tools to assist in a handwriting examination. One such tool is a database of hundreds of selected handwriting characteristics with predetermined frequency of occurrence proportions already established. As such, a trained forensic document examiner can objectively analyze the degree of uniqueness within a handwriting sample. Forensic document examiners also use magnification for their examination – but not just any magnification. A common tool for forensic document examiners is the stereoscopic binocular microscope. The term “stereoscopic” means that there are two independent lenses at the bottom of the microscope from which to view the document. The term “binocular” means that there are two eyepieces on the microscope. The combined effect is that the forensic document examiner is able to view handwriting in three dimensions and microscopically at the same time. This is important in order to fully analyze the identifying features of genuineness or non-genuineness (like forgery).
As with signatures, statistical and scientific studies have found that untrained individuals are not very good at differentiating genuine cursive handwriting from handwriting of a different person. Therefore a properly trained and qualified forensic document examiner will be essential to providing you with expert analysis of any handwriting that may be in question.
The examination of unsigned anonymous cursive handwriting or hand printing is a common request for forensic document examiners. One of the reasons is that there are so many different types of anonymous writings. Some of these include ransom notes, robbery notes, threatening letters, extortion notes, hate letters, letters of remorse, workplace threats, graffiti, and gossip. These anonymous writing examinations are essentially an application of cursive handwriting & hand printing sections along with the indented writing section.
Alterations (Altered Documents)
The examination of documents for evidence of alteration is a common request for qualified forensic document examiners. Altered documents can take many forms to include additions, erasures, cut-n-paste, page substitution and obliterations.
As the name implies, addition is a form of alteration in which one simply writes supplemental entries to those already in existence. A forensic document examiner can use ink analyses techniques to attempt to differentiate the inks used. In addition, variances in pen pressure, handwriting characteristics, size of writing and baseline positions are other features that forensic document examiners will review in order to determine the presence or absence of additions.
Erasures can take two forms. There are physical erasures and chemical erasures both of which create an altered document by removing original entries. A physical erasure is simply a process similar to the use of an erasure on pencil writing. A forensic document examiner can use spectral analyses equipment to look for remnants of leftover original entries that were not fully removed as well as a microscopic examination for evidence of paper fiber disturbance. A common field examination technique of examination is to hold the document up to light to see if there are bright areas that might indicate the location of an erasure. Chemical erasures will often leave stain marks and warp the paper.
Cut-n-paste is a digital copying process. Handwriting or other entries can be copied from one document and digitally placed on another document. While it can sometimes be very difficult to prove that a cut-n-paste has occurred a qualified forensic document examiner is trained to know what to look for and what documentation to seek in just such an altered document examination.
Page substitution, as the name implies, means removing one page of a multi-page document and replacing it with another document. Forensic document examiners will conduct examinations of the paper, printing, ink, handwriting and latent indentations (indented writing) for evidence of this form of alteration.
Obliteration is a form of alteration in which some form of material is placed over original handwritten, hand printed, or other entries in order to cover up the entry. One common form of obliteration is opaquing material that leaves a solid paste over the original entry. Another common method is to scribble over the original entry until it is rendered illegible. Forensic document examiners have numerous techniques at their disposal that can render the original entry legible again. the technique used is often dictated by the form of obliteration.
As with all the sections, it is vital for the forensic document examiner to have the proper instrumentation for these examinations. In addition to a microscope, one should have, and utilize, spectral analyses equipment that allow for reflected infrared, infrared luminescence, longwave ultraviolet fluorescence and shortwave ultraviolet fluorescence examinations. In addition, the examiner should also have an electrostatic detection device for purposes of locating latent indentations.
Indented Writing Examinations (Indentations)
Handwriting, hand printing or signatures are commonly thought of in two dimensions – length and width. However, there is a third dimension – depth. Depth takes the form of latent indentations in sheets of paper under the one on which a person is writing. Indented writing examinations are designed to make those latent indentations legible. You may have read old detective novels in which someone scrapes the paper with the side of a pencil in order to make the indentations legible. Unfortunately this method usually destroys any chance of detecting the latent indentation. If one is confronted with a potential situation in which indented writing may exist, it is imperative that they contact a qualified forensic document examiner immediately. Some of the more common situations in which indented writing examinations are conducted are ransom notes, robbery notes, threatening letters, extortion notes or other form of anonymous letter. Indented writing examinations are also common in medical record examinations.
Latent images will be transferred to the pages below the page on which one is writing leaving open the possibility of locating a document on which an incriminating text is found. Likewise, a document, such as a ransom note, may itself contain latent indentations that provide information that can lead to the source.
A qualified forensic document examiner will utilize an electrostatic detection device (EDD) for this form of examination. the EDD process is non-destructive and very sensitive to the faintest of latent indentations. The product of the examinations will be a document that resembles a photocopy with a sheet of plastic over the surface. This product is a permanent record of what latent indentations were found.
The examination of documents for evidence of whether a document is genuine or counterfeit centers on two types of examinations. One examination concerns the printing process used in the document at issue and how it compares to the printing processes used in known genuine documents of the same type. The other examination involves the presence or absence of security features that are embedded within the document.
There are many different forms of printing processes and important documents often use multiple printing methods in order to make counterfeiting difficult. Qualified forensic document examiners are trained to recognize the different printing processes and will conduct comparative analyses with known standards in order to determine whether the same processes were used.
In addition the basic printing processes a forensic document examiner will also examine a potential counterfeit document by reviewing for the presence or absence of any of a number of security features that are added to important documents. Some of these features are common knowledge, such as the security strip in currency, while others are closely guarded secrets.
The single most important factor in an examination of a potential counterfeit document is the collection of known standards for comparison. Just collecting a similar document is not enough. Was the standard issued at the same time? Did the entity that published the genuine documents change the document at any time? If the locale ran out of documents did they have an official or unofficial policy as to substitute documents? Did the locale of origin allow for photocopying? Are there issues of autonomous regions or limitations as to the standardization of the document at issue? Only after all such questions are answered can one reach a reliable conclusion as to authentication.
Examination for evidence of counterfeiting requires specific equipment that a qualified forensic document examiner will have in their laboratory. I invite you to check out my laboratory equipment section in this website.