Document Integrity and Security

Southworth Watermark In Paper

While the benefits of storing information electronically are undeniable, there remain significant advantages to archiving important documents in hard copy, particularly where the security and originality of a document is concerned.

Originally published in FindLaw’s Law Firm Business Center,
Find Law Website

By Ann Mahony

In today’s fast-paced world of electronic information, it’s easy to forget that creating a document in digital form is truly revolutionary. In the scope of history, computers themselves are relative newcomers, and only in the last twenty years has the concept of replacing hard copy with a digital image even been considered.

While the benefits of storing information electronically are undeniable, there remain significant advantages to archiving important documents in hard copy, particularly where the security and originality of a document is concerned. Computers are essential for databases, information storage, email, and the like; but too many businesses, in an effort to cut costs, convert their records to electronic files before considering the consequences. Anything electronic can be modified, altered, deleted etc. whereas physical paper is infinitely more difficult to compromise.

While security measures are continually being developed to circumvent the risk of fraud in electronic documents and online ID theft, a savvy hacker can still compromise certain systems. Though we’ve all become more vigilant when sharing personal information due to risk of identity theft online, for example, let’s not forget that good old-fashioned fraud is still attempted using paper documents. Luckily for us, paper documents, by their very nature, are able to be constructed with built in security measures that cannot be compromised.

For ordinary documents created on a PC and printed on commercial printers, there is always a hard copy result, which can not only be encoded with security measures to foil the forger, but is infinitely more available for examination. There are numerous tricks to prevent alteration, slip-sheeting and unauthorized duplication, and attorneys should be aware of them.

Some companies encode the serial number and manufacturing code of their color laser printers and color copiers on every document produced by their machines, providing identification of the exact machine on which a document was produced. Undetectable to the naked eye, these codes furnish yet another layer of security to foil the forger. Specialized paper provides an additional layer of precaution and should be used for any document that needs to remain secure when there is the risk of unauthorized reproduction. Paper is available today that, when photocopied, reveals hidden words such as “void” or “copy”.

Using a high-end cotton bond paper is critical when printing final versions of legal documents such as wills, trusts, pre- and post-nuptial agreements or any type of agreement or directive. Some paper companies, such as Southworth, manufacture legal bond paper that has a date code embedded in the watermark of each sheet. Although this security feature uses technology that is more than one hundred years old (in Southworth’s case), it is strongly relied upon today to verify validity of legal documents. I myself was able to provide a “smoking gun” for an attorney in a recent case based on the date encoded in a watermark.

When a document is printed on high-end watermarked paper, it’s imperative that each page of the document be sourced from the same ream of paper to ensure the date code is consistent on every page. If at some future date the document is compromised (an extra sheet is slipped in, an amended sheet replaces an original), the watermark’s date code in the replaced sheet(s) would be unlikely to match the date of the original document, enabling the amended page to be identified. Many a will with a genuine signature has been “slip-sheeted”.

Another security measure used to expose slip-sheeting is to deliberately incorporate a typing error into the document. For example, transposing the first two letters of a commonly used word such as “the” the third time the word appears on each page of the document. This type of error could easily go unrecognized by a forger, who would probably attribute the error to a poor typist. By contrast, a forger would ensure that his inserted page was “perfect”, and thus by it’s very nature of perfection be exposed as false. (Notes of each unique code should be kept on file.)

These are just a few examples of how attorneys can offer their clients added security by protecting sensitive legal documents from fraud. Unfortunately it’s an all too common occurrence, increasing at an alarming rate. It only makes sense to take reasonable measures that will help lessen the impact of fraud to your clients.

Ann Mahony is a court qualified handwriting and forgery expert in business since 1980 testifying for both the prosecution and the defense in all aspects of questioned documents including wills, trusts, medical records, hate mail, graffiti, elder fraud, watermarks, and electronic records. She is an ABA Associate and a member of the National Association of Document Examiners, Northern California Fraud Investigators Association, Forensic Expert Witness Association and American Society for Testing & Materials. Ms. Mahony can be reached at