Analyzing documents effectively

By Robert Tie, CFE, CFP

MayJune-S2WIf a client asked for your help in confirming the source or authenticity of a handwritten document, would you recommend fingerprint analysis, a handwriting examination or both? And whose technical support would you seek?

First, "be cautious about ordering latent fingerprint examinations of a document," says Farrell Shiver, a board-certified forensic document examiner (FDE) and a principal of Shiver & Nelson Document Investigation Laboratory Inc. in Woodstock, Ga. "Such examinations can substantially alter the document. The chemicals for performing latent print examinations might cause ink to run and can preclude some types of ink examinations and those for indented handwriting. If both of these types are necessary, conduct the forensic document examination before processing the document for latent fingerprints."

Second, look before you leap when choosing someone to advise you on document examination strategies and tactics. The Fraud Examiners Manual (FEM) recommends consulting the forensic laboratories of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies on criminal matters, such as anonymous threats. The FEM also states that in contractual disputes or other civil matters, fraud examiners can locate fully qualified, certified forensic document examiners by contacting the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) or the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). Shiver identified the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE) as another reliable source of information on qualified FDEs.

"Forensic document examiners working for federal, state, and some local law enforcement agencies are usually well-trained and experienced," says Shiver, a past president of the ASQDE, an AAFS member and an independent FDE who was first certified by the ABFDE in 1993. "Unfortunately, that's not true of many purported document examiners in private practice. Beware of organizations and certifications whose names closely resemble those of longstanding legitimate associations. The consequences of engaging an unqualified FDE can be dire. It's not uncommon for a judge to rule that a given examiner, who holds what an uninformed person might think are impressive credentials, actually isn't qualified to provide expert testimony on the matter at issue."

Shiver cites the following example: American General Life and Accident Insurance Co. v. Preston Ward, Derick Ward, and Ann Vines, a 2008 insurance-related case decided in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division. The judge granted plaintiff's motion to strike the testimony of defendants' expert witness. "Although he holds himself out to be a ‘qualified' questioned document examiner," the court said, "… it [is] significant that [the expert witness] is not accredited by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (the ‘ABFDE'). The ABFDE is the ‘only recognized organization for accrediting forensic document examiners.' Wolf v. Ramsey, 253 F. Supp. 2d 1323, 1342 (N.D. Ga. 2003)."

"The other side in the case will do whatever it can to challenge your expert's qualifications," Shiver added. "But even if they could present the judge with a strong argument — before trial — for not permitting your expert to testify, they might hold off doing so until the first day in court or until you're about to put your expert on the stand. At that point, you have no time to engage a replacement. So protect yourself and your client from that fate; do your homework before selecting an FDE."


"According to the ABFDE and also the American Society for Testing and Materials, an international developer of voluntary professional standards, two years of full-time training by a qualified FDE are necessary for achieving competence in this field," says Shiver, who — per ABFDE regulations — must satisfy additional experience and education requirements for recertification every five years.

Most certified FDEs received their training in government laboratories, he adds. But individuals trained by qualified examiners in private practice also can apply for ABFDE certification if they satisfy its education, training and experience requirements.

Other considerations Shiver says are important include: 


  •  The quality and extent of the examiner's technical equipment, such as that needed to perform nondestructive examination of inks or to develop indented writing impressions. 
  •  Whether the examiner's equipment is portable, enabling him or her to test documents that for security or other reasons are available for inspection only at their existing locations. 
  •  The examiner's ability to communicate findings clearly to a jury. 
  •  Whether the examiner has ever been found unqualified to provide expert testimony in a case. 
  •  The accuracy and completeness of information on the examiner's curriculum vitae, such as the quality, duration and extent of professional training and education. 
  •  Whether the examiner has a criminal record. Shiver says he knows of a twice-convicted felon in another state who practices there as an FDE, but whom courts in several cases have excluded from testifying as an expert. 


"Handwriting comparison constitutes the majority of work for most FDEs," Shiver says. He emphasizes that forensic document examination doesn't involve efforts to determine personality characteristics from handwriting. "That's the province of so-called graphologists, who resemble FDEs no more than astrologers do astronomers."

Wherever possible, Shiver recommends, investigators should provide original documents for analysis. This makes it possible to perform a microscopic examination of a document's ink, to evaluate any indented impressions caused by writing on a paper that rested on the document in question and to conduct other tests not feasible on a copy of the original.

Four major steps, each of which includes several sub-tasks, comprise the process of comparing samples of handwriting, Shiver says: 


  1. Examining the questioned handwriting, whose source or authenticity the examiner is assessing. 
  2. Examining the characteristics of known writing samples, whose origins are unquestioned. 
  3. Comparing the two, and noting similarities and differences between them. 
  4. Forming a professional opinion on the results of that comparison. 


Such analysis can serve several purposes. One is determining if a questioned document, for example, a codicil, was written by the same person as a known document — the will to which it purportedly was appended. Establishing the authenticity of known writing samples is of particular importance in such cases.

Other types of comparisons aim to determine if the handwriting on documentary evidence of a crime, such as check forgery or a mailed anonymous threat, is that of a given suspect. In cases of this kind, it might be necessary to obtain as many as 25 or more exemplars, or samples, of the suspect's writing on forms comparable to the documentary evidence. For instance, to make a meaningful comparison, contrast the handwriting on a forged check with a specimen of the suspect's handwriting on a similar document.

Shiver recommends that investigators obtain a sample of the suspect's handwriting that's unrelated to the matter under investigation. This will illustrate the range of variations in the suspect's handwriting and help the examiner determine whether the suspect is disguising his handwriting exemplars.

"It's also advisable to obtain samples of the suspect's writing with the hand he or she doesn't normally use," Shiver says. "Then you can evaluate the possibility that the suspect used that hand to disguise his handwriting on the document in question."

Competent handwriting analysis can be more valuable than some investigators think, Shiver says. To illustrate, he cites a case he worked during the years he spent as an FDE for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory.

Checks totaling several thousand dollars were passed on two military bases in the western U.S. Imprinted on them were the names of fictitious account holders and banks. Investigators believed the perpetrator created the phony checks from scanned images of legitimate checks that he or she digitally altered and printed. After failing to identify any suspects, the investigators called in Shiver.

Some evidence on the checks suggested that a soldier in a certain unit had created them. The investigators asked Shiver to search for leads among the personnel records of 1,000 of its members with access to computers and scanners. In his view, however, this approach was too restrictive, would have consumed too much time and perhaps produced no useful results. Instead, he examined the index cards on which all unit personnel had written their addresses or forwarding addresses if they'd been reassigned. Within 12 hours, Shiver had reviewed all 1,000 cards and identified three on which the handwriting significantly resembled that on the forged checks. The writing on one card was a particularly good match.

During questioning, the suspect associated with that card provided additional handwriting exemplars, and Shiver identified him as the writer of the checks. When confronted with the handwriting identification, the suspect immediately confessed to creating the forgeries with a low-tech methodology involving a word processor and photocopier — not the more advanced devices investigators had assumed he had used.

"This case demonstrated three things," Shiver said. "First, never underestimate the investigative value and incisiveness of handwriting examination by a qualified professional. Second, when formulating an investigative hypothesis, it's important to have an open mind. For example, don't assume that impressive forgeries are always produced with the latest technology. Third, FDEs working at the crime scene with investigators can achieve results impossible or difficult to accomplish in a laboratory."


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Certain types of advanced technical examination, however, require highly specialized equipment that might be available only in the lab. One of Shiver's most valuable analytical devices is the video spectral comparator (VSC), which he uses to perform non-destructive analysis of ink in his laboratory. In contrast to the fingerprint analysis discussed at the beginning of this article, the VSC's non-destructive processes make it possible to examine ink and paper without changing a document.

Shiver prepared images 1, 2 and 3 at left to illustrate how the VSC can reveal fraudulent alterations of documents. Image 1 depicts the questioned entry on a receipt whose value a skilled fraudster had changed without leaving traces visible to the naked eye. Image 2 is of that same receipt examined for luminescence with a VSC, which reveals the location of the ink marks inserted to convert "1.50" into "$500.00." Image three is of the same receipt, examined using infrared reflectance, clearly showing that the original receipt was for "1.50." 





"The goal of forensic document examination is to provide answers to critical questions," Shiver says. "But sometimes, there isn't enough solid evidence to reach a definitive conclusion. For example, handwriting examinations sometimes end with qualified opinions (such as ‘highly probable,' ‘probable' or ‘indications') or a ‘no conclusion' opinion that still might be useful in court. I have testified to "no conclusion" opinions on several occasions."

The Fraud Examiners Manual (page 3.112) also says such non-findings could be valuable:

Though inconclusive, some writings might contain common characteristics to indicate possible identity, or differences to indicate that the suspected person might not have prepared the writings. The expert might suggest additional leads for the fraud examiner… 

Even when they are limited, such insights sometimes can help a persistent CFE pose the next critical question about a document — another step forward in analyzing it effectively.

Robert Tie, CFE, CFP, is contributing editor of Fraud Magazine and a New York business writer. 

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