Though online notary public services are now available in Indiana, some local notaries have seen a surge of in-person business since the pandemic began.
Notary publics act as impartial parties to assure important legal documents are signed without fraud. They authenticate signers’ identities and work to ensure that both parties are aware of the stipulations of what they are signing.
“All we really do is witness people signing,” said Jeremy Simmons, a notary public at A1 Packaging Store on Sagamore Parkway.
The service, which by its nature requires all parties to be present, is typically offered either in businesses like banks or shipping stores as an added service, or by independent mobile notaries. Notaries have started to transition to operating online though, beginning with Virginia passing Remote Online Notarization laws in 2011.
Andrew MacDougall, digital marketing manager of the online notary platform Notarize, said the company has seen an influx in customers since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March.
One would think this online option would now be more appealing to clients given complications from COVID-19, but according to Simmons, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Both Simmons and KaSheena Wilbur, an independent notary public in Lafayette, reported an increase of in-person business in the months since the pandemic hit.
“A lot of people are doing wills and estate planning because of the virus,” Simmons said. “I’d say (client numbers) have doubled.”
He said A1 Packaging remained open during the entirety of the stay-at-home order, but Wilbur said mobile notaries developed more creative methods for conducting sessions during that time.
She said she began to implement curbside signing when the state shut down, receiving some skepticism from the local notarial community. With curbside signing, she said notaries observe their clients sign documents through house windows or from their cars, allowing them to still witness the act while maintaining an acceptable distance.
“Everything (on the documents) is tagged for where all the signatures need to go,” she said. “If they have a question, we can do a FaceTime or Zoom meeting or something of that nature to go over the documents page-by-page.”
Both Simmons and Ellen Keiser, a notary public at the UPS Store in the Purdue Memorial Union, said they deal solely with clients in person, so signers have to be in their offices to receive notarial service.
“The whole point of a notary is to say we watched you sign,” Keiser said. “And if we can’t watch you sign, it just says ‘electronic signature,’ then how do we know it’s actually your signature?”
Wilbur said she has operated Goldline Notary in the Lafayette area since 2015. She said she runs the business on the side, working around her full-time job as a 911 dispatcher.
“Some people, depending on where they live or the hours they work, are not able to get any documents notarized,” she said. With this in mind, she said she decided to offer notarial services early in the day during the week, with emergency 24-hour services on weekends.
In addition to mobile notarization, Wilbur said she is in the process of becoming certified to implement RON services, which would allow her to conduct notarial signings completely online through a two-way video chat platform. She said these remote sessions could make it more difficult for notaries to explain to clients what a particular document entails, but said she anticipates clients utilizing remote notarization much more once it becomes available.
“The convenience of it is great,” she said. “You no longer have to get up, leave your house … to go and sign your documents, you can do so in the comfort of your home.”
MacDougall said that while only about half of U.S. states have passed RON laws, notarial signings have interstate recognition, so any U.S. citizen with a valid Social Security number across the globe can have documents notarized remotely.
He explained that RON is different from e-notarization, another recent development in the notarial world. The former is where the entire signing process is conducted online with no in-person interaction, he said, while e-notarization uses all digital documentation and digital signatures but still takes place in front of a notary.
The RON process, he said, is safer and more convenient for both notaries and their clients. He said Notarize uses knowledge-based authentication to verify user IDs, which is more reliable than the human eye.
Since notaries for the company interact with customers through online viewing platforms, he said they can sign off and terminate a session if they determine a certain party is not who they claim to be, or feel they are being forced into signing.
This, he said, isn’t always an option for mobile notaries, who often conduct sessions in their clients’ homes.
“Something like one in four notaries have felt intimidated into applying their seal,” MacDougall said. “And when you think about the importance of some of these documents … one in four is unacceptable, right?”
While remote online notarization seems to be on the rise, MacDougall implied it doesn’t look to be anywhere close to replacing physical notarial meetings.
He said that, especially with real-estate closures, many first-time buyers still prefer the physical process over digital.
“When you’re buying your first home, you’re pretty scared, right?” he said. “You’re signing away your life, essentially … and you kind of want to know what you’re getting yourself into. So folks pretty much 35 and younger tend to gravitate toward having that person they can communicate with.”
But older audiences who have already been exposed to the real-estate process, MacDougall said, tend to be more comfortable with conducting these closures online.
He said that although COVID-19 may not drive the notarial process completely online, it has shown individuals in all aspects of work that remote solutions are more important now than ever.
“I think the lasting thing that we’ll see from COVID is that people are going to take contingency plans pretty seriously,” he said, “and understand that remote solutions are kind of the best of both worlds.”