Buying groceries. Stopping for gas. Going to the bank. Picking up your dry cleaning. Of all the irritating but necessary errands you have to tend to, getting something notarized ranks among the most mundane—but it’s also among the most important. It seems like such a simple task, but your rendezvous with a Notary Public can pose certain risks that you need to be aware of.
Even more frightening, important documents could be fraudulently notarized without your knowledge or consent. Imagine coming home after a long, relaxing vacation and finding a “For Sale” sign in your front yard. It sounds far-fetched, but, unfortunately, it’s not.
Notary fraud is more common than you would think, so it’s important to arm yourself with information and know what to watch for.
What is a Notary Public?
A Notary Public is a public servant and an officer of the state of Texas who is authorized to:
- Take acknowledgements
- Take depositions
- Certify copies of documents not recordable in public records
- Administer oaths
- Protest instruments permitted by law to be protested, such as bills and notes
A Notary Public takes an official oath of office to faithfully perform the duties of the office and is required to post a $10,000 bond with the Secretary of State. The primary duty of a Notary Public is to show that he or she, acting as a disinterested party, has noted that the signer of a document understands the importance of what he or she is signing, that the signature is that of the signer, and that the document was signed willingly. The signature and seal of a Notary Public in and of themselves do not provide proof of these facts, but they do allow people in trade and commerce to rely on the Notary Public as a third party who has no personal stake in the transaction.
The Dangers of Notary Fraud
A Notary Public is personally liable for negligence or fraud in the course of performing his or her duties. The bond a Notary Public is required to post is meant to ensure that the injured party can recover up to $10,000, but the Notary can still be held personally liable for any damages he or she has caused and may be subject to criminal prosecution and revocation or suspension of his or her notary public commission.
Types of notary fraud can include:
- Failing to acknowledge your documents
- Falsified stamps
- Allowing the signer to sign a document while the Notary Public is not present
How to Protect Yourself from Notary Fraud
Many fraud cases, especially those involving real estate fraud, begin with a Notary Public who has been paid off to fraudulently acknowledge a document. This scenario plays out from time to time because almost all documents filed in the county records require a notary stamp. Most counties don’t have a system in place through which they can verify the legitimacy of a notary, and since it’s relatively easy to obtain a notary stamp, this type of fraud is growing increasingly common.
Case in point: a group of con artists in the Houston area recently claimed more than 70 vacant houses by crafting fake deeds with forged notary seals, leaving dozens homeowners angry and baffled.
Notary Fraud: What to Watch For
There are several things that Notary Publics are not allowed to do and which you should be aware of. Prohibited acts include:
- Performing acts which constitute the practice of law
- Preparing, drafting, selecting, or giving advice concerting legal documents
- Using the phrase “notario” or “notario publico” to advertise notary services (this is because most native Spanish-speakers equate “notarios” with licensed attorneys, and unscrupulous Notary Publics sometimes take advantage of that misinterpretation)
- Overcharging for notary public services
- Notarizing a document without the signer being in the notary’s presence
- Notarizing the notary’s own signature
- Issuing identification cards
- Signing a notarial certificate under any other name than the one under which the notary was commissioned
- Certifying copies of documents recordable in the public records
- Recording in the notary’s record book the identification number that was assigned by the governmental agency or by the United States to the signer, grantor, or maker and that is set forth on an identification card or passport; or any other number that could be used to identify the signer, grantor, or maker of the document
Becoming a Notary Public is quite easy and generally takes little more than the completion of a few simple online courses—which means corrupt or deceitful individuals bent on notary fraud may be able to become “real” notaries. If you need something notarized, do the following when you seek a Notary Public:
- Search for a notary through the American Society of Notaries or somewhere reputable such as your bank or tax preparation company.
- Make sure the notary is authorized to notarize your document by asking to see the actual stamp imprint and the validity year.
- Once your document has been stamped, make sure the notary’s name and commission number and the date when the commission expires are visible.
On the other side of the issue, most people don’t know that they’ve been victims of notary fraud until it’s too late (like the aforementioned homeowners in Houston). That’s when you need an expert attorney to step up to the plate and defend your rights.
If you believe you’ve been the victim of notary fraud, contact The Farah Law Firm today and let our experienced attorneys fight for the justice you deserve.