In this day and age, when credit cards and online purchasing are ubiquitous, identity theft is a common concern. But what people often don’t know is how forensic scientists identify the perpetrators in these types of crimes. It turns out there are a group of specialists called Questioned Document Examiners whose job it is to tackle tasks such as examining handwriting in suspected forgery cases and examining altered or fake documents.
Working with questioned documents goes far beyond identity theft, though. A questioned document is any letter, check, driver’s license, or other document whose authenticity is disputed. Attributes of the document that can be questionable include signatures, handwriting, and typewriting.
But how can an examiner tell if a document is not authentic? As it turns out, both handwriting and typeset have unique characteristics that depend on the individual person or typewriter that produced them. These characteristics make it possible to identify whether the document was created by a legitimate source.
In the case of handwriting, everyone makes certain letters or letter combinations in an unusual way; these features can be used to identify that person’s handwriting. Forged handwriting would not perfectly duplicate these unique characteristics.
Similarly, typewriter output has identifiable characteristics. Some of these are the same within a given model, such as manual/electric, fabric ribbon/carbon film ribbon, etc. However, typewriters also have individual characteristics that depend on use or abuse, damage, and general wear.
In the context of crime scene investigation, questioned document examination consists of examining writing, printing, ink, paper, impressions, typewriting, typewriters, and other sources to determine whether a questioned document is genuine. Documents may be damaged, making the process all the more challenging. It may even be necessary to reconstruct documents.
Before documents can be examined, they must be collected. When a crime is committed, crime scene investigators collect and preserve any documents that might be relevant to the crime. This includes items like suicide notes, planners, signed contracts, and receipts. The crime scene investigator logs information about where the document was found. If a document contains handwriting, the investigator must look for a collection of writing samples to compare against the questioned text. With document evidence, it is critical to minimize handling to prevent alterations.
The document examiner’s job begins when document evidence arrives at the lab from the scene of the crime. The document examiner looks carefully at the characteristics of the document in question to determine if they match the characteristics of the expected source. This often means comparing handwriting in a questioned document against handwriting from a known source, to determine if the writing in both documents is from the same person. Examiners take a scientific approach to assessing the characteristics of each document and comparing them to decide if there is a match. The overall analysis process is similar if a typewriter or checkwriter creates the document in question, though the specific details vary.
The examiner must thoroughly document every step of the process and write a full report about the examination process and its conclusions. If the document evidence is used in a case that goes to trial, the examiner may be required to testify in court about the work.
There are a wide variety of questioned documents, and questioned document examiners need to be sharp and skilled to stay ahead of the criminals. As technologies for creating and altering documents continue to develop, this field of forensic science is sure to be exciting for a long time to come.
About the author: Emily Nelson earned an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before beginning her career as a science writer.