Frequently Asked Questions

What does a forensic document examiner do?

The task of forensic document examination is to answer questions about a document using a specific scientific processes and methods. Many examinations involve a comparison of the questioned document, or components of the document, to a set of known standards. The most common type of examination involves handwriting where in the examiner tries to determine the authenticity of a signature.

One task of a forensic document examiner is to determine if an item originated from the original signer. Forensics include determining what has happened to a document, determining when a document was produced, or deciphering information on the document that has been obscured, obliterated or erased.

A forensic document examiner deals with items to determine authentication before a court of law:

  • Handwriting (cursive / printing) and Signatures
  • Typewriters, Photocopiers, Laser printers, Fax machines
  • Chequewriters, Rubber stamps, Price markers, Label makers
  • Printing Processes
  • Ink, Pencil, Paper
  • Alterations, additions, erasures, obliterations
  • Indentations
  • Sequence of Strokes
  • Physical Matching

What does the terms “forensic science” and “forensic document examination” mean?

“American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc.”
Forensic science is the application of various sciences to the law. The application of allied sciences and analytical techniques to questions concerning documents is termed forensic document examination. The examination of questioned documents consists of the analysis and comparison of questioned handwriting, hand printing, typewriting, commercial printing, photocopies, papers, inks, and other documentary evidence with known material in order to establish the authenticity of the  material as well as the detection of alterations.

Handwriting Identification
“Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners”
Handwriting identification is based on the principle that, while handwriting within a language tends to be alike to the degree that we can meaningfully read it, there are individual features that distinguish one person’s writing from that of another. Just as no two people are exactly alike, the handwritings of no two people are exactly alike in their combination of characteristics. There are, of course, natural variations within the handwriting of each individual. These variations must be closely and carefully studied by the examiner, so that he can distinguish between what is a “variation” and what is a “difference”.

The examiner must also be cognizant of the differences between “class characteristics” and “individual characteristics”. Class characteristics are those which are common to a group such as a particular writing system, family grouping, foreign language system, or professional group.  Individual characteristics are those which are personal or peculiar letters or letter combinations, which, taken together, would not occur in the writing of another person.

Handwriting identification is a comparison study requiring authenticated specimens of known handwriting from the individual(s) concerned. These are closely compared to the handwriting characteristics exhibited by the questioned writing in order to determine authorship. Like must be compared to like: printing to printing and cursive to cursive, with comparable letters, letter combinations, words, and numerals.


What is an autograph?

An autograph is a document written entirely in the handwriting of its author, as opposed to a typeset document or one transcribed by an amanuensis or a copyist; the meaning overlaps with that of the word holograph. Autograph also refers to a person’s signature. This term is used in particular for the practice of collecting autographs of celebrities. The collection of autographs is known as philography. An individual’s writing styles change throughout the lifespan of a person; a signature of President George Washington (c. 1795) will be different from one when he was an 18-year-old land surveyor. After British Admiral Nelson lost his right arm at the Tenerife sea-battle in 1797, he switched to using his left hand. However, the degree of change may vary greatly. The signatures of Washington and Lincoln changed only slightly during their adult lives, while John F. Kennedy’s signature was different virtually every time he signed. Other factors affect an individual’s signature, including their level of education, health, and so on. Blues singer John Lee Hooker had a limited education, and such is reflected in his handwriting. Composer Charles Ives and boxer Muhammad Ali both suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and their handwriting show the effects of that condition as well. Native American Chief Geronimo had no concept of an alphabet; he “drew” his signature, much like a pictograph. Many individuals have much more fanciful signatures than their normal cursive writing, including elaborate ascenders, descenders and exotic flourishes, much as one would find in calligraphic writing.


What is a signature?

A signature (from Latin signare, “sign”) is a handwritten (and sometimes stylized) depiction of someone’s name (or some other identifying mark) that a person writes on documents as a proof of identity and will. It acts as a seal. The writer of a signature is a signatory. Like a handwritten signature, a signature work describes the work as readily identifying its creator.


What is a Manuscript?

A manuscript is any document that is written by hand, as opposed to being printed or reproduced in some other way. The term may also be used for information that is hand-recorded in other ways than writing, for example inscriptions that are chiseled upon a hard material or scratched (the original meaning of graffiti) as with a knife point in plaster or with a stylus on a waxed tablet, (the way Romans made notes), or are in cuneiform writing, impressed with a pointed stylus in a flat tablet of unbaked clay. The word manuscript is derived from the Latin manu scriptus, literally “written by hand.”


What type of training does it take to become a certified document examiner?

During criminal investigations, law enforcement agencies may come across written or typed documents that may be valuable evidence. They call in forensic document examiners to analyze these documents and provide information that may help investigators identify a suspect or gather enough evidence to make an arrest. Because forensic document examination requires technical skills and expertise, those interested in a career in the field must receive proper training.


Forensic document examiners are trained to identify handwriting and signatures, but they study a wide range of documents. They are able to identify if a document has been forged or if the text has been altered by adding, deleting or substituting words. Forensic document examiners can also identify which model of typewriter has created a document or whether a document is a photocopy. They also compare inks that are used in documents and determine what type of writing instrument was used in the document’s creation.


There are no formal undergraduate or graduate programs in forensic document examination. However, most document examiners have at least a bachelor’s degree. Many earn a degree in a core science such as chemistry or a focused field such as forensic science or criminal justice. Some specialized vocational schools offer training programs in forensic document analysis. They may be taken in a classroom or online, and typically award a certificate at the conclusion.


The most widely accepted specialized training for forensic document examiners is an apprenticeship with a trained document examiner. This usually occurs as paid on-the-job training, which requires two to four years of full-time work. Most forensic document analysts complete their training at a law enforcement crime laboratory. Some may also work under the supervision of a private document examiner.


After completing an apprenticeship, forensic document examiners may become certified. The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) offers voluntary certification for examiners in the United States, Canada and Mexico.  Each candidate must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and provide documentation that he has completed at least two years of full-time training at a forensic laboratory that is recognized by the ABFDE. References from three qualified forensic document examiners are also required. Forensic document analysts must also complete a certification exam that contains written, oral and practical portions.


Are Authentications based on science or opinion?

The best anyone can do is to consult with someone with a proven training and a reputation for following set standards and principles of Forensics,   Secondly; you should determine the chain of custody of the item.  There is a standard protocol for authenticating an autograph but it starts with education, training and experience.  The ideal authenticator should have forensic training, experience in a laboratory and served an apprenticeship under a court certified document examiner.  Anything else is just an opinion.


How can third party authentication companies authenticate so many different autographs?

To properly authenticate a signature you must have numerous exemplars to do side by side comparisons. That is why at GFA we only authenticate a limited number of autographs and have experts specialized in these signatures.


I have been told that third party authenticators  are passing items as authentic that are not real, or items that are real that are rejected as not-authentic?

Without having the proper training, experience, education and exemplars a third party authentication is just an opinion,  not a scientific determination of fact.