Forensic document examiners offer chemical analysis of documents.
They can tell you if a signature is real or if a certain person wrote something.
"There are really two types of forensic document examiners," explains Sharon
Tschirhart, an examiner in Texas.
"The document examiners can usually do chemistry analysis of ink, toner
and paper. The other type is called a forensic handwriting expert. They can
determine whether handwriting or printing is authentic or forged. They can
also identify or eliminate a person who wrote a particular writing.
"There are also examiners that cover both areas."
Brian Lindblom is a forensic document examiner. He says most document examiners
do both the chemical analysis and the handwriting identification.
But there are some special chemical tests that might only be done by a
smaller group of experts. It's kind of like a specialty within a specialty.
Tschirhart is an example of a forensic handwriting expert. She examines
and identifies signatures, handwriting, hand printing and numbers on all types
of documents. Her job is to make educated judgments about the handwriting
"Each document comes with its own set of problems," she says. "One could
be a signature that is being questioned and another could be a terrorist letter."
For example, she might receive the signature of someone named John Smith.
Her client would tell her that it's believed to be a fake. So Tschirhart would
need other things that John Smith had recently signed to determine whether
he also signed the document in question.
Or the client might say they believed Mary Jones signed John Smith's name.
In that case, Tschirhart would need Mary Jones to sign as John Smith. She
would then compare the two.
"First, the documents are visually examined to familiarize myself with
the problem," Tschirhart says.
"If it is an original, I will use various instruments. I look for stops
and starts of the pen and other signs of forgery. Then in comparing the known
sample to the questioned one, I look at each individual stroke and compare
it to the original."
Lindblom says his basic job is to examine documents whose authenticity
is in question.
"Documents come into question for a variety of reasons," he says. "For
example, the signature on a business contract may be disputed. Or a page in
a last will and testament may be suspected of being a substitute sheet.
"There may be concerns that the value of a check has been raised. Or someone
might claim that a doctor has rewritten a page, or pages, in a patient's medical
chart. All of the above examples would require the documents to be examined
Forensic document examiners do these analyses for a range of clients. These
include law firms, private corporations, investigation agencies, forensic
accountants, unions and banks.
Regulatory bodies also use the services of document examiners. Regulatory
bodies govern the activities of professionals such as doctors, nurses, lawyers,
chiropractors or engineers.
Forensic document examiners may have to testify in court or before those
"Testimony is required to support our findings," says Lindblom. "Detailed
charts are often used to demonstrate findings and help make complicated examination
issues more clear."
"Very few cases actually go to court," says Tschirhart. "I would say that
we go to deposition much more than actual court."
Deposition is testimony given under oath. The information is written down
or otherwise recorded. Then it can be used in court at a later time.
You need money to set up shop.
"To purchase the needed equipment, initial advertising and schooling, I
believe that $10,000 would be a good place to start," says Tschirhart.
"You can count on everything going back into the business for at least
the first year because of additional training -- which is continuous -- organizational
dues and more equipment. Also, one needs to apprentice with a professional
for at least two years and an apprentice does not get paid or, if so, paid
The apprenticeship is important because there is no formal education available
for this type of work in North America.
"The apprenticeship program of two to three years is considered by most
government and police laboratories to be the minimum period of time that a
trainee will need to study the subject matter necessary to become competent
in the field," says Lindblom.
"Furthermore, there are various professional bodies -- such as the Canadian
Society of Forensic Science, [the] American Academy of Forensic Science and
the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners -- that require a training
program of this length to qualify for a membership."
Tschirhart adds that a college degree is also required. "It doesn't matter
what your degree is in. The court just appreciates knowing someone has the
ability to learn. Chemistry, criminology, physical science and psychology
are good education choices for this career."
The Association of Forensic Document Examiners states that a degree is
required for those wishing to enter this field. It also indicates that certain
traits, such as an analytical mind and a sharp eye for detail, are important.
According to Tschirhart, most forensic document examiners in the U.S. currently
earn in the range of $150 to $200 per hour.
There are things that both Tschirhart and Lindblom like about their careers.
"I like digging into the 'problem' of handwriting," says Tschirhart. "It
is very detailed work and you need to figure out the answer to each individual
document problem. I also love court testimony."
Lindblom finds the always-changing requirements intriguing. "The variety
of issues that must be answered and the new examination techniques that must
be learned maintain one's interest in the field," he says.
But there are also drawbacks.
"Within the private sector, the examiner must be prepared to work on very
short deadlines and often in a stressful environment," says Lindblom. "The
clients -- lawyers primarily -- can be extremely demanding."
And the money is not always steady. "You do not work eight hours a day,
so your money comes in sporadically," says Tschirhart. "You make good money,
but you must learn to manage it wisely."
There are no statistics available for this specialty field. But Tschirhart
says the future is rosy. "The business is wide open in the United States
and the outlook is good. There are approximately 600 independent examiners
and a couple hundred FBI, etc."
However, she does add a note of caution.
"The FBI do not consider the independent examiners as experts," she says.
"You will also find certain groups that do not consider anyone being certified
outside their group as an expert. I have over 35 years' experience in the
field and I always face someone on the opposing side that will say that I
am not qualified because I don't belong to their group."
If you have a sharp eye and mind, like figuring out puzzles and are looking
for a career that's a little bit different, forensic document examining just
might fit the bill.
Association of Forensic Document Examiners
This professional organization also has student members
National Association of Document Examiners
A private nonprofit organization
Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners
This site includes information on pens, paper, typewriters, photocopiers
and other document-related topics
American Academy of Forensic Sciences
A professional society with more than 5,000 members
American Society of Questioned Document Examiners
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