"The consumer touches a notary maybe once every year," said Richard Hansberger from a company called Safedocs that allows people to "sign" documents online as validly as it with a pen.
Notarizing isn't a common activity for most people, but there are times when they need to do it, such as for documents around buying a house. And then they often need it pronto.
Until now, that meant finding a local notary and driving there with a stack of papers, since people are required to appear before the notary in person to prove they are who they say they are.
But Virginia recently changed that. A law passed in spring 2011 that take effect on July 1 this year now allows people to "appear" via videoconference instead of visiting a notary's office. The online Virginia notaries can provide the service for people in any part of the U.S.
Digitally signing documents isn't new. It dates back to the federal ESIGN law of 2000. Anytime you order and pay for a product online you are using a digital signature. And it has been available for notarizing documents, but previously the parties had to all be in the same room.
Hansberger of Safedocs (not the only company doing this) argues that that online notarizing is safer than doing it in person, since there is an audio and video record of the transaction. And the legal documents, typically PDFs, are digitally marked in a way that shows if anyone has tampered with them.
Safedocs is currently providing the service for business, but it aims to offer it to consumers in about six months.
In the long term, Hansberger believes that online notarization can cut down on fraud. One common scam, for example, is to forge what's called a quitclaim deed, which trasnfers all of one person's legal title to real property to another person. Fighting one of these bogus claims can cost the victim thousands of dollars in legal fees, he says.
With the digital system, "If someone's dumb enough to sit in front of a camera and commit a crime, we've got them," Hansberger said.
Of course, that would be in a distant future when all notarization is electronic. As long as someone offers the paper method, fraud will be easier, he concedes.
"It's not an overnight process by any means," said Hansberger. "Paper is not going away anytime soon."