Before I begin this week's column, may I bring to your attention that January 23rd we in the industry of handwriting analysis celebrated 'International Handwriting Day A little piece of history that won't change the course of your life but I thought I would share with you anyway. This date, the birthday of John Hancock, was chosen to celebrate the art of handwriting in 1977 as the heightened use of computers rapidly changed our lives.
If you ever hear the expression 'put your Hancock there' it means sign on the dotted line. The signature of John Hancock (one of the founding fathers in American history) became the template on which all signatures should be formed. His signature can be found on many archival documents of that time but most importantly on the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, hence the biggest celebration for Americans across the globe. So take out a pen and paper and put your 'Hancock' down while you can still remember how to sign your name and celebrate the decreasing art of the written word.
Let's fast-forward to London 1992.
The Devil is in the Detail
My practice was only three years old at the time and I only took cases in which I would not have to testify in court. At the time it was my goal to stay out of the British courtroom as an expert witness until I had honed my skills. I didn't want any judge telling me that I lacked experience as an expert witness.
“Just because you score high marks in your exam and set up shop and all the rest, doesn't make you an expert” my 86-year-old mentor told me. “Only time and continued learning can increase your ability to become a good examiner.” So I took heed from my well-respected tutor Felix Klein and stayed in the trenches doing all the grunge work and out of the courtroom for nine years.
I was approached by a private investigator who wanted to retain me to examine a series of insurance documents. The case piqued my interest but I was reluctant as it seemed like a case that could end up before a judge — but he insisted this matter was a long way away from the courtroom as they were just scratching the surface of a bigger ring of fraud and just wanted an examiner's opinion.
In those days I advertised in the 'Yellow pages' of the telephone book. Back then there was no such thing as a Google search. You picked up the heavy phone book and thumbed your way through the pages and dialled the number. That's how I was found. These days people search on their phones and find what they want and make a decision to use you. Life pre- Google and the Internet, hard to fathom, was only 26 years ago.
You see the devil is in the detail and maybe this particular case would never have come to surface if it hadn't been for the diligent, efficient observation of an insurance broker named Godfrey A Edwards.
Godfrey had been in the insurance business 15 years and he processed every form and document with meticulous care. He was a quiet man with a purposeful stride, like a bowler preparing to destroy the wicket.
The suspect, a young man — let's call him Jimmy — who lived in Whitechapel, a stone's throw from the Blind Beggar's pub, came into some money through the death of his uncle. With all the money he inherited he bought himself a spanking, brand new BMW 3 series coupe, his dream car. But after a year of having it he realised the upkeep was too expensive for his meagre budget. A friend of his had recently had his car stolen and had received a tidy sum from his insurance policy. Jimmy's head started ticking 'suppose I had my car stolen'?
After weeks of searching he found a reliable mechanic who offered him a place to hide his car under the arches of a railway station. He did the necessary work on it to recreate it. He reported the car stolen and completed the forms for the insurance company and within weeks, collected the money. His friend resprayed the car, changed the licence plates, and drove it for six months and then reported it stolen again to another insurance company.
This practice continued for four years and his friend began to do the same thing with other cars.
Before long they were running an incredible scam. Cars where purportedly stolen in parts of London where no CCTV cameras were installed, in areas that were dubious to say the least.
Mr Crosby, the private investigator that once worked for Scotland Yard, had been hired by the fourth insurance company to further investigate the matter.
“The thing is,” he said, “the fourth time the insurance money was issued the loss adjuster, Godfrey Edwards had a hunch that jogged his memory that a similar form was submitted four years previously at his other job.”
Mr Crosby contacted his colleague who was still with the first insurance company where he had processed the form and asked him to do a search. Back then there were no digitalised case management records, where you just input the data and the information pops up. Everything was manual, which meant you had to go to the archives, dig through dusty files in rusty metal filing cabinets, probably in a dark damp room in the basement of the building to retrieve them. (Some poor soul fresh out of school called a junior would be assigned to such a task).
After several weeks the colleague finally surfaced with the file. Godfrey compared the contents with the new claim — the file had a different name but all the logistics were the same. Same model car, although the registration number had been changed. The other notable fact was that the mileage on the car was extremely low. The company sent out a group message to all insurance brokers and Mr Crosby was hired. The difficulty was proving that one person had signed all the same insurance forms although the signatures were different and years had passed between each transaction.
Over 25 documents were given to me with different names: Jimmy Smith (how original), James Green, John Crane, but one thing that was consistent within these documents was the formation letters of the car's details and the dates. Many times no attention is being paid to the rhythm of a person's writing — a difficult thing to identify with untrained eyes. The rhythm of the writing on these documents was the same. No attempt had been made to disguise the slant or depth of the writing.
The initials BMW had a consistent spacing, and the letter M on all the documents stood higher in the middle of the other two letters flanking it. The registration number was also different, but the number formation and date formation on each form was consistent. The same formation of the numbers 8, 9 and 2 were similar with an extreme right slant of a slash between the numbers. No two people could create this intricate detail so similarly.
I combed through each document carefully measuring and examining, and it was my opinion that all documents were signed by one person. Young Jimmy was arrested and charged and I did not have to testify, as this was just the tip of the iceberg in a larger fraud investigation. These days insurance companies are logged into a general system with each other. A click of a button and all details surface, wherever you are.
Warning: Don't try this at home, you will be caught. We are now living in the Orwellian era; everything is documented on a database. Technology works for us and against us. Every move you make through your phones and technical devices can be traced — You can run, but you can't hide!