I have been fighting property title fraud since 2003, and notaries public played integral parts in every case…but not in the way you think.
The victims of real estate scams almost always assume that the notary was complicit in the crime, but in my experience, this is almost never true. In most cases, the con artist victimized the notary too. There is one major exception to this rule: fraud by fake notario publicos. As I discuss below, notario fraud is a version of affinity fraud, in which con artists from Latin American countries take advantage of their fellow ex-patriots here in the United States.
What is the penalty for notarizing a forged signature?
Accomplice liability theory would make the notary as guilty as the con artist themselves if the notary knowingly and intentionally notarized a forged signature. Various states might have penalties specifically to punish notaries who commit crimes, but even if they don’t, the state can prosecute a notary for aiding and abetting the criminal acts of a fraudster.
With that said, in my experience, notaries are rarely complicit in the criminal activity. It is far more common that the con artists victimized the notary as well in one of the following ways:
- The con artist used a fake ID to impersonate the true signer in front of the notary. Modern, high-quality fake IDs cannot be detected by the naked eye, and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) routinely seizes thousands of them at the border. Just last year, CBP confiscated 19,888 fake drivers licenses in shipments from China and Hong Kong.
- The con artist stole the notary’s stamp. A detective once told me about a notary who worked in a real estate office who did everything right, except for one small thing: She didn’t lock her desk drawer where she kept her notary stamp. When she was away from her desk, someone in her office “borrowed” the stamp and used it on over 400 fraudulent property deeds.
- The con artist forged the notary stamp and signature. In a financial elder abuse case I handled, the fraudster made a beautiful copy of the notary stamp on a power of attorney and forged the signature of the notary. The key problem here is that literally every desktop computer available today has the technology to create believable forgeries.
- The con artist persuaded the notary to do something he wasn’t allowed to do. In one case of mine, the con artists (whose greatest skill is convincing people to trust him) told the notary that he represented homeowners in foreclosure and sometimes they don’t have time to get to a notary. Unfortunately, the notary believed the lie and agreed to “prenotarize” 100 property deeds for the fraudster, who then used them whenever he needed them in his scams. This notary lost his license.
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve never come across a notary who willingly participated in the scam; I have. I’m just saying that it is very rare. If you are the victim of real estate fraud, don’t alienate the notary right off the bat by accusing them of a crime because they will probably end up being a valuable witness for you against the true fraudster.
The website Stopnotariofraud.org explains:
In many Latin American countries, the term “notario publico” refers to an individual who has had a lot of legal training, while in the United States, a notary’s function is simple and straightforward: provide impartial witness to the signing of official documents to prevent fraudulent acts.
People who hold themselves out as notario publicos in the United States MUST be licensed as notaries public in the United States and they MUST NOT provide any legal services. They may only perform the limited authorized functions of notaries, unless they are also licensed as lawyers.
Unfortunately, every ethnic and cultural group has con artists who gladly take advantage of their own people. Scammers will pose as notario publicos and charge substantial fees for services, for which they are not license and which they are not competent to perform, such as immigration services. Unfortunately, the substandard service provided by these fraudsters usually leaves their victims worse off, and the victims then need to hire licensed attorneys to dig them out of the hole that the notario publico dug for them.
Conclusion: Notario Fraud is common, but Notary Fraud is not.
Con artists in immigrant communities, who claim to be authorized and competent to provide legal services as notario publicos, regularly take money from desperate people and leave them worse off. This is a variation of “affinity fraud’, in which a person uses a pre-existing connection to the victim – same ethnicity, race, culture, food, language, history, religion, etc. – to persuade the victim to trust them. Once they have the trust, they can persuade the victim to part with their money.
In contrast, fraud committed by licensed notaries is rare because it is so easy for the con artists to circumvent the notaries by stealing or forging their stamp.
If you are a victim of a notario public or if you are a victim of real estate fraud, the first step you should take is to file a report at your local police station.
– David Fleck, CEO