The shift toward remote learning has radically transformed U.S. education workflows over the past year. Across the country, thousands of schools have traded paper documents for digital ones, while 25 percent of educators at both the K-12 and higher-ed levels have transitioned from “wet” paper signatures to electronic signing. But while some types of digital signatures provide automatic multi-factor identity verification, the vast majority of simple e-signatures are highly vulnerable to forgery and fraud — and it pays to know the difference.

Of course, parental signature forgery is nothing new in the educational sector. Students have been imitating their parents’ signatures on permission slips and grade cards since way back in the pre-digital age. In fact, paper-and-ink signature forgeries can be notoriously hard to detect, since the only way to verify a “wet” signature is to visually compare it against a document signed by the student’s parent at some earlier date — a fact that often left yesteryear’s school administrators wide-open to signature fakery.

The good news is that today, certain types of e-signatures use multi-factor verification to certify a signer’s identity, much like how our banks’ websites require us to verify our sign-in attempts by providing a one-time code texted to our phones. This second layer, or “factor” of verification, dramatically reduces the risk of fraudulent sign-ins — and in a similar way, multi-factor identification can help prevent forged signatures, by requiring each signer to prove that they really are who they claim to be, every time they sign a document.

Now that remote and hybrid learning models have become standard at schools across the country, an understanding of the different levels of e-signatures is mission-critical for preventing online signature fraud. So let’s take a closer look at how electronic signature verification works, and explore how to implement it in your institution’s document workflows.

How to Prevent Parent Signature Forgery

Know the differences between simple, advanced and qualified electronic signatures.

E-signatures for parents are only as valid as the identity assurance built into them. In other words, not all digital signatures are equal — and some types are much simpler to fake than others. While many lower-level e-signatures include little or no identity verification, more advanced types can be linked to a specific document signer through a digital certificate, or even verified by multiple third parties.

If you’ve ever “signed” a digital document by scribbling your signature on it, you may have found yourself thinking that such a simplistic signing process must be incredibly easy to fake — and that’s absolutely correct. This type of digital signature is called a simple e-signature (SES); and since it involves no identity verification whatsoever, it’s extremely vulnerable to forgery. That means SESs are best avoided on documents that require legally binding parental signatures, such as release forms for sensitive or personal student information.

For a somewhat higher level of identity verification, some institutions prefer advanced e-signatures (AdES), which are uniquely linked to a particular person. When this person signs into their account, they gain access to a digital certificate, which is often linked to a specific electronic device, or to a piece of personal info like a driver’s license number. However, a certificate’s level of identity assurance depends entirely on who has access to it. Some AdESs even use self-signed certificates that are created by users themselves — which makes them effectively meaningless in terms of authenticity. Plus, any student who can unlock their parents’ devices and/or knows their personal info can easily forge an AdES with just a few clicks.

When it comes to foolproof identity verification, a qualified e-signature (QES) is the only way to go — especially when dealing with documents whose signatures need to be legally binding. Unlike less-advanced e-signatures, a QES requires the signer to provide real-time proof of personal identity every single time they sign. In Adobe Acrobat Sign, for example, we use QESs backed by the Cloud Signature Consortium (CSC) standard, which are validated by trust service provider (TSP) experts who authenticate signers’ identities through multiple methods working in parallel — including mobile app sign-ins, username/password combos, and/or video calls in which the signer has to show a driver’s license or other physical ID.

Use electronic signature PDFs with multi-factor identity verification built in.

Just as qualified e-signatures provide much more robust security than simple ones, apps that provide built-in identity verification will greatly enhance your school’s ability to detect and prevent parental signature forgeries. While some organizations still send out electronic forms to be signed in any app a user chooses, this outdated practice enables students to fake signatures simply by typing or drawing them on the doc — just as easily as they imitated their parents’ handwriting on the paper-and-ink forms of yesteryear.

To prevent forged electronic signatures on sensitive and legally binding documents, it’s essential to contain the entire online document signing process within a single app — an app you control, which provides built-in identity validation and audit trails for every digital signature. For example, the Sensei AI technology built into Adobe Acrobat can automatically populate a digital form with dynamic text boxes, drop-down fields, multi-selection menus, and custom response fields. You can then share the form directly within Acrobat — enabling parents to review it, fill it out, and send it back to you in real time, without ever leaving the app.

By plugging Adobe Acrobat Sign into your smart PDF forms, you can collect qualified e-signatures within Acrobat, too. As described in the section above, every QES in Acrobat is backed by the CSC’s multi-factor identity verification process. What’s more, all parental signatures in Sign come with a unique built-in audit trail, which you can view by clicking on that signature’s properties within the PDF file. That means you can trace every QES back to its signer, and see legally binding proof that they’re exactly who they claim to be.

Tighten signature security on documents that are especially prone to forgery.

As powerful and game-changing as qualified e-signatures are, they may not always be necessary (or practical) for every document your school circulates. For example, you may decide it’s perfectly acceptable to use advanced e-signatures, or even simple e-signatures, on minimum-security documents like course add/drop forms. When considering which type of e-signature to require on a given document, it’s important to balance security with seamlessness — making each signing process as simple as is practical for students, parents and staff, while also putting clear institution-wide policies in place around documents that require tighter security.

You may want to start by making a list of document types that are especially prone to signature forgery, and invest in multi-factor QES identity verification for those particular forms. For example, it’s generally a smart idea to ramp up digital signature security on parental consent forms, registration and application forms, scholarship and financial aid forms, and on any form that contains students’ personally identifiable information (PII), such as their full name, address, and/or social security number. Preventing fraudulent signatures on these forms will keep your students safe — plus, signature security on sensitive documents can help safeguard your institution against serious legal liability, too.

To discover more about how paperless processes can help jump-start your school’s journey toward digital transformation, be sure to read The Complete Guide to Digital Document Management for Education.

Digital Signatures