What’s in a signature?

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DEBBIE NORRELL

With the proliferation of hand-held credit or debit card payment devices popping up in retail establishments, signing with your finger has become the new norm says Creditcards.com. But few can master a genuine signature with a fingertip on such a tiny screen. Are these squiggly, and often illegible, digital signatures really legally binding?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” A fingertip signature is just as binding as an ink one. “A signature is a mark affixed to a record showing a person’s intent,” says John Levy, executive vice president of IMM, which provides electronic signature and document solutions.

“It goes back to the Civil War when soldiers would sign up and half of them couldn’t read or write. They laid down an X. That didn’t tell you who it was, but it was their mark showing their intent to sign.”

More recently, he says, governments have spoken at both the federal and state levels. The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, adopted by nearly all states, and the federal Electronic Signatures In Global and National Commerce Act both decree that a record or signature may not be denied enforceability simply because it is in digital form.

What’s more, Levy says that these laws have broadened the definition of a signature to include a process (such as clicking “I accept” on a user agreement screen) or even a sound. “Let’s say I call you on the phone and say I want to sell you this magazine and you say, ‘Yes, I’d like to purchase that,’” Levy adds. “With your permission, I’ll record you, and that recorded file can be used as your signature.”

How do they know it’s you? “These signatures can be legal by definition because of UETA and ESIGN. That doesn’t always mean if you go to court it will be enforceable,” Levy says. He adds that he’s signed with a fingertip many times himself when taking taxis or renting a surfboard. “It’s a great tool for low-ticket items. I wouldn’t want to sign that way if I were getting a $100,000 line of credit.”

How closely finger signatures resemble pen-and-ink ones is a matter for debate. “A merchant can compare the customer’s signature with the sample on the back of a credit card with the same accuracy,” according to Lindsay Wiese, spokes­woman for Square, which enables credit card swipes on iOS and Android devices. She adds that if a signature doesn’t look right, the user can shake the device and start over, much like an Etch A Sketch.

But not everyone experiences fingertip signing as comparable to signing with a pen or stylus. “A fingertip signature is worse than a handwritten signature,” says McAfee online security expert Robert Siciliano. “The first time I was asked for one, I thought, ‘Really? What am I, 3 years old? Are we finger painting here?’”

It may not matter, though, since pen-and-ink signatures do little to prove the identity of the signer, Siciliano says. “It really has no security value whatsoever, and that applies to all handwritten signatures.”So now you know about those new fingertip signatures. It’s a whole new world.

(Email the columnist at debbie­norrell@aol.com.)

 

 

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