The Information Age has featured an explosion in the variety and accessibility of data and the types of documents containing information. In the course of a single day, countless transactions occur worldwide, which are documented in some form.
A central risk of documentation is the falsification and alteration of such materials for fraudulent purposes. To minimize the risk of using documents to perpetrate fraud and other dishonest activities, the field of forensic science features a profession that focuses on document examination and authentication.
The word “forensic” means “having to do with the law.” The field of document examination was first developed in the early twentieth century to identify forgery and establish the authenticity of documents. This field developed due in part to the issue of prevalent public illiteracy. which at the time made it easier for would-be criminals to perpetrate fraud on others using false or altered documents. Albert S. Osborn, the author of the book, Questioned Documents, published in 1910, is considered the father of forensic document examination.
Forensic document examiners, sometimes also called questioned document examiners, are scientists who utilize the scientific method of questioned document examination (QDE) to examine documents. These professionals apply a set of known standards to conduct their work. The documents they examine are often written, typed or printed materials.
Examination of the authorship of a written letter is considered the most common type of questioned document examination. Forensic document examiners may perform several tasks, including discerning if an item originated from the same source as a known item as well as the time a document was created. They may also successfully retrieve information from documents that have been erased, hidden, or otherwise altered. In performing their duties, forensic document examiners can ultimately provide information critical to a successful investigation.
The practice and results of QDE can be successfully used in legal proceedings and criminal investigations. In a crime scene investigation, QDE can be applied to several criminal concerns, including abduction, embezzlement, organized crime, and homicide. Given the substantial importance documents may have in a criminal investigation, QDE practitioners often prove critical to the outcome of such investigations.
Forensic document examiners are different from graphologists. Graphologists are handwriting analysis practitioners who claim to be able to discern personality characteristics based on handwriting features. Graphology is not viewed as a legitimate science within the scientific community. Forensic document examiners are experts in handwriting analysis and the examination and interpretation of numerous other types of documents.
It is important to note that the demands of the forensic document examination profession necessarily make it a full-time profession. Given the large number of documents a qualified examiner must be skilled to assess and the continued evolution of the discipline, a document examiner must be exposed to a large volume of cases full-time to achieve and maintain proficiency successfully.
Forensic document examiners may work in various settings, including state, county, and municipal crime labs and federal agencies that operate their own questioned document units. These federal agency questioned document units, also known as federal QD units, offer their expertise in numerous ways to ultimately support state and local law enforcement operations. Federal agencies that operate QD units include, but are not limited to, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, US Secret Service, US Army Crime Lab, and the Internal Revenue Service.
The career outlook for forensic document examiners is promising. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) forecasts the employment of forensic science technicians to grow by 11 percent between 2021 and 2031. This growth rate is much faster than the average for the employment marketplace.
Job openings are expected to result from attrition due to a combination of retirement and individuals who leave the field to pursue an entirely different occupational field.
Given the value of forensic document examiners, technicians, and related jobs in the field of criminology, it is not uncommon for forensic professionals to work outside of standard business hours. Depending on their particular duties, forensic professionals such as forensic document examiners may work extended and weekend hours and travel to crime scenes within their assigned jurisdiction.
The salary for a forensic document examiner varies according to a number of factors including educational attainment, experience, specialization, duties and the local job market in which they work. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes the median pay for a forensic science technician in 2021 was $61,930 per year or an hourly rate of $29.78. BLS data is not available for the particular job category of forensic document examiner.
A review of popular salary websites shows a large variation in reported salaries for forensic document examiners.
For example, Comparably, an online site that provides services such as employer branding and recruitment marketing, notes that the average forensic document examiner in the United States earns $89,780.
Salary.com indicates that as of May 2023, the average salary was $49,204. Meanwhile, ZipRecruiter notes that the national salary average for a forensic document examiner is $47,249. And Liveabout.com notes the median annual salary is $59,150, with professionals at or above the 90th percentile earning at least $97,350 while those earning at or below the 10th percentile earning no more than $35,620.
It is generally true that states offering the highest compensation for forensic document examiners also have high costs of living. ZipRecruiter indicates the five states with the highest compensation are, in descending order, Hawaii, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Rhode Island. Of these five, the top three states are also considered high-cost-of-living states.
According to ZipRecruiter (2023), of the ten cities with the highest compensation for forensic document examiners, which are listed below, nine of them are in high-cost-of-living states:
When reviewing open positions, applicants should consider the local cost of living in their decision-making process.
Individuals seeking to become forensic document examiners must complete formal education, training and other requirements. Many individuals who enter this profession have completed a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a similar course.
However, an undergraduate degree is insufficient to become a practicing forensic document examiner. On-the-job training in a questioned document laboratory setting is also a crucial requirement. Laboratory experience allows individuals to accrue practical experience within a controlled setting before working in real-world settings that lack such controls.
To become a forensic document examiner, applicants must complete the following steps:
Step 1. Graduate from high school (four years). High school students seeking a career in the forensics industry can be proactive as early as high school by completing required and advanced coursework in mathematics and sciences. Students who complete advanced placement coursework in subjects such as mathematics may perform better in their college studies and enjoy a higher degree of confidence upon beginning their subsequent on-the-job training.
Step 2. Complete a bachelor’s degree (four years). Forensic document examiners must have at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural sciences. Given the particular focus of forensic document examiners, students who complete core courses and/or electives in criminology, forensics, natural sciences, and history may find themselves especially well placed to be competitive applicants for the required apprenticeship they will begin once they complete their undergraduate degree.
Step 3. Complete a supervised apprenticeship (at least two years). After completing an undergraduate degree, individuals must complete a minimum of two years of formal training in an apprenticeship under an expert examiner. The importance of this training cannot be overstated as such on-the-job training is critical to developing proficiency.
As noted by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE), two full years of full-time training in a recognized document laboratory will provide a trainee with just the minimum competence required to perform the duties of a typical forensic document examiner. A quality training program will include the study of all aspects of questioned document examination, which typically can only be achieved by examining a large volume of documents from various cases.
Step 4. Successfully pass necessary testing. Given their duties’ exacting, meticulous nature, document examiners must have excellent eyesight as demonstrated by vision testing.
Step 5. Apply for certification. Once they complete the aforementioned requirements, candidates for certification apply to the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners.
Step 6. Continue demonstrating proficiency and capacity to practice in profession. Once certified, examiners must complete continuing education and certification renewal requirements to maintain proficiency and practice in this profession.
Through the aforementioned requirements, forensic document examiners develop expertise in the skills necessary to perform in their profession successfully. Skills essential to forensic document examination include detailed analysis, communication, and critical thinking skills.
Forensic document examiners may work in several settings. The skills they routinely apply will depend on many factors, including their experience level and their employer’s priority needs. These professionals are expected to:
Given the exacting nature of their work, it should be no surprise that forensic document examiners also must possess or have access to the specialized equipment necessary to practice. Examiners should have a current library of books and journals relevant to the profession and functional technical equipment. Some of the technical equipment commonly needed includes a stereoscopic binocular microscope, an electrostatic detection apparatus, and a video spectral comparator.
Upon completing the necessary requirements, individuals can become certified forensic document examiners. Several professional organizations exist to provide certification, training, and promotion of the question document profession. These are noted below.
American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE) – The ABFDE offers certification for forensic document examiners. To receive ABFDE certification, individuals must meet education, training, work experience, and examination requirements. Details regarding these requirements can be found on the ABFDE website.
The ABFDE was organized in 1977 and certifies less than 120 active Diplomates within the U.S. and Canada. While a lack of certification does not definitively indicate a person lacks the qualifications to be a practicing forensic document examiner, holding ABFDE certification shows an individual meets certain minimum professional qualifications. Such certification thus enhances a person’s marketability when seeking employment.
American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE) – The ASQDE is the world’s oldest and largest organization for forensic document examiners. ASQDE membership provides professionals with education, recognition, and professional networking events. Membership is open to qualified forensic document examiners and specialists working in public and private sectors worldwide who meet high educational and professional standards. Prospective members must also successfully complete testing before advancing from a provisional membership to a regular one.
Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SAFDE) – Founded in 1988, SAFDE is a professional organization of forensic document examiners focused on the southeastern region of the United States. The organization offers an annual conference and business meeting as well as a website that includes a listing of private sector practitioners.
Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners (SWAFDE) – SWAFDE is a regional professional organization of forensic document examiners. Despite its title, individuals may hold membership regardless of location within the United States.
To qualify for membership, applicants must be a United States citizen, be engaged in the work of forensic document examination as their primary profession, and meet all requirements noted in SWAFDE’s bylaws and directives. Individuals currently completing a training program guided by a qualified, experienced examiner are also eligible to apply for membership. New members must be sponsored by an active SWAFDE member.
American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) – Established in 1948, AAFS is a multidisciplinary scientific organization whose members enjoy professional development, networking, and industry recognition opportunities. With a membership exceeding 6,500 members, AAFS is active in all 50 member states of the United States and 71 other nations. Membership is organized into twelve sections, each representing a specific discipline within the field of forensic science. Each section features opportunities specific to that subdiscipline. To secure membership, applicants must meet both academy-wide and section-specific requirements.
Bernd Geels is a Berlin, Germany-based freelance writer and artist. He holds an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science and two graduate degrees. He completed his most recent graduate degree in international environmental studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 2011. He is interested in healthcare, climate change, marine conservation, indigenous science, and refugee issues. You can reach him directly at [email protected]