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Forgers Born Not Made

SCHOOL CHILDREN are told that “practice makes perfect,” in skills such as penmanship. When it comes to amateur forgeries, however, that bit of childhood wisdom might not hold true. A study of people with no forgery experience shows that practice yielded no examples of forged signatures “that might be regarded as a large improvement in simulation quality,” according to study author Robert Radley. He concludes, based on the study and his experience, that “it does not appear to be the case that huge improvements will be made even after a huge amount of practice.”

Radley, a U.K.-based questioned-document examiner, asked 25 people to practice forging three signatures. They were given a piece of paper on which to practice the signatures, with spaces at the bottom to produce the “final” signatures. They performed the same exercises, copying the same signatures, on five separate occasions. A small cash prize was offered as an incentive for the participants to produce their best forgeries.

Of the 75 final signatures examined (the fifth set of three forgeries for each of the 25 participants), 34 were judged by Radley to be about the same or worse than the participants’ previous forgeries. Thirty-eight signatures showed a slight improvement, while only three were deemed to represent a large improvement.

Just five of the writers showed “a reasonable ability to produce a pictorial resemblance of the master signature,” says Radley, with only two showing a “reasonably good” level of fluency for some signatures.

The most common slips of the pen detected by Radley were “pen lifts” and retouches, with other examples marred by shakiness and other faults. Rather than improve with practice, many of the participants got worse, Radley notes. “Practice in many cases only leads to incorrect structuring being ingrained into the writer’s simulations, some of these defects being more emphasized the more practice they had as opposed to being eliminated.”

For corporate investigators responsible for probing forgeries, the study suggests that people with poor penmanship are unlikely to be the culprits. Investigators should always bear in mind, Radley says, “the old adage that you cannot write better than your best; that is, someone who has poor writing skill cannot simulate a highly fluent and complex signature.”