Defining Altered Document

An alteration is a modification made to a document by physical, chemical, or mechanical means including, but not limited to, obliterations, additions, overwritings, or erasures. Sometimes an alteration may occur to critical entries after a document has been signed and/or paragraphs, words, or pages have been inserted, removed, or replaced creating forged documents. A document examiner will use a variety of techniques including alternate light sources, magnification, detection of indented impressions, side lighting, transmitted lighting, and others in a non-destructive method to examine the document for characteristics indicative of alterations.

An alteration is the unauthorized modification of a security document and can occur for a variety of reasons.


Altering Document After It Has Been Signed


The intent of the writer who is signing someone else’s signature is similar to determining the intent when someone is altering documents.  Why?  Is there a reason or necessity why this is occuring?  Making that determination about “intent”  is not up to a document examiner to decide but should be decided by the triers of fact in a courtroom.  

There are explanations, for example, why signatures may be prepared by someone other than the author.  Spouses are authorized to endorse checks for deposit, a bookkeeper may be authorized to sign checks for the company president.  It’s important when evaluating characteristics of alterations because they may occur in the normal preparation, handling, and storage of the documents. 

Common Type of Documents That Usually Altered


Financial document

Financial documents are altered for obvious reasons and include checks, wills, deeds, trusts, and stock certificates.  Other documents are altered for the free movement of people like passports and visas.  Still other documents are altered to gain benefits like health care forms, child custody agreements, employment contracts, and social security cards.

Alterations of financial documents such as checks and stock certificates are frequently examined by document examiners.  Personal checks are altered by using a similar type of writing ink and raising the dollar amount and adding words to the written entries.  Another option is check washing: where a check will be intercepted, washed and presented as a legitimate check.

Detection of these types of alterations may be done by examining the check under alternate light sources such as ultraviolet and infrared.  These light sources can show a reaction in the paper that a chemical was applied or that a different pen was used to raise the dollar amounts on the checks.  With stock certificates, alterations may occur with the typewriting or printing process used to produce the certificate.  Often the alteration will demonstrate a style of typewriting/printing that is not consistent with the rest of typewritten/printed certificate or a printing process that was not commercially available when the stock certificate was issued.  All of these characteristics must be carefully analyzed and a conclusion based on the entirety of the document.

Passport and Visa

Identity and security documents such as passports, visas, and driver’s licenses are targets for alterations as well.  Alterations to a genuine document like a passport may include photo substitutions, page substitutions, mechanical and chemical erasures.  Photo substitution is the most common form of passport fraud.  The photograph of the original owner is removed and a new photograph put in its place.  Information that cannot be easily altered or erased is removed by disassembling the passport, removing the page of unwanted data (visa denial), and reassembling the page with a genuine page from another passport or replacing it with a counterfeit page.  Printed and written information can be altered by mechanical or chemical erasures.  Erasure may be whole word, letters, portions of letters, or dates.  Chemicals used to erase information can be detected with ultraviolet light.

Healthcare form

Health care fraud is a crime.  It’s committed when a dishonest provider or consumer intentionally submits, or causes someone else to submit, false or misleading information for use in determining the amount of health care benefits payable. Medical forms can be from the hospitals, physicians, clinics, home healthcare providers and insurance companies, and others. In some cases, the forms are genuine but submitted with drastically inflated claims 10x the normal fee for the procedure.  Other cases include alterations attempted by adding or deleting information on physicians notes, time keeping sheets, and procedures.  Many attempts are made to alter physicians prescriptions by simulating signatures, altering or substituting amounts, medicaitons prescribed, etc. Healthcare forms and all the agencies involved in transferring information are prone to attempts of alterations in a multitude of ways.

Custody agreement

Court orders and custody agreements are frequent targets by individuals attempting to alter these documents. If original agreements are presented, it’s important to evaluate these forms for areas of possible paper fiber disturbance, use of different fonts, sizes, and/or styles, irregular spacing and alignment, and crowded or awkward placement of writing and/or printed text. Many times these forms are signed by judges, attorneys, and the parties involved in the custody agreement so many signatures are present to examine. On occasion, these forms will  be notarized but the notary signature and seal must also be examined for possible manipulation or alteration, as they frequently are added to many documents to “prove” the genuineness of the signatures attached. 

Employment contracts

Employment contracts not only cover the time period when you obtain employment but often have detailed requirements if the employee no longer works there or is terminated.  In short, copies of these documents should be kept by the employer and the employee should any disagreement arise.  Frequent alteration attempts include: the signatures (by transfer, simulation, or duplication), additions and deletions of text, or entire pages inserted within the contract or have been removed.  It is not uncommon for a document examiner to examine the entire text looking for indications of alterations in horizontal and vertical spacing of text, alignment of signature lines, and differences in font, among others. 

Social Security cards

Social security and identity cards are frequent targets of alterations because they serve as breeder documents to obtain other types of identification. Social security and identity cards contain security features to keep them safe however many individuals still try and reproduce these document, sometimes in their entirety.  This is extremely difficult with social security cards because the paper is security-type paper and not commercially available.  Other security features include: letterpress printing, offset printing, microprinting (which is text that is contained within the document that can be detected with magnification), and multi-colored planchettes (these are the discs of paper embedded into the fiber of the cards).  These randomly placed discs are three dimensional and challenging to replicate.

How to detect alterations in document ? 

Detecting alterations depends on specialized equipment, light sources, and microscopes like the stereomicroscope and comparison microscope. One piece of specialized equipment used to detect alterations is a multi-spectral imaging device.  This device allows a document examiner to perform non-destructive testing with specialized lights sources and filters  covering the visible, ultraviolet, and infrared range of light. This equipment is the workhorse of any document examiner’s office and assists with analyzing a variety of materials including substrates, printing, laminates and holograms.

Other equipment such as side lighting or oblique lighting can detect indented impressions.  Detecting indented impressions on paper can provide valuable information to the examiner such as the sequencing of entries in a journal.  This may be helpful when working on medical record alterations of a patient’s chart or doctor’s notes, ledgers used for recording daily transactions, checkbooks, or notebooks.

A stereomicroscope provides magnifying power to allow fine details of a document to be observed.  Combined with lighting options, this can be particularly useful for distinguishing printing processes, detecting indented impressions, to observe handwriting features, and identifying security features like microprinting. These observations are recorded in the examiner’s notes or captured with a camera that may also be mounted on the microscope.

Lastly, a comparison microscope involves the use of two compound microscopes providing a split screen for an examiner to compare two things side-by-side.  These are especially useful for typewriting cases in discovering defects and non-print area or for any examination where a detailed side-by-side examination would be beneficial.  For alterations of passports, for examples, it may be useful to review the genuine passport alongside the suspect passport to determine all the security features and anomalies.

Detecting alterations is reliant on good training and equipment. Being able to recognize the characteristics of genuine features will help immensely when detecting alterations in security documents.

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