Will Abbreviating 2020 on Legal Documents Make You Vulnerable to Fraud?

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In Identity Theft in Violins and Tax Scams, I shared how my violin was made by Umberto Lanaro in 1962, but bears the label of Eligio Puccini stating the violin was made 25 years earlier. It was a mystery to me why Lanaro, who hails from a family of esteemed luthiers, would use the label of the unknown Puccini.

In response to that article, I received an email from another violinist, whom I’ll call Mike (not his real name), who owns an instrument made by Umberto Lanaro. Like me, Mike purchased his instrument from a well-known dealer, and like me, he had had questions about the label in his instrument.

Mike was so curious about this anomaly in violin labels he traveled to Padua, Italy, where he met with Umberto Lanaro, who then was in his 90s and still making string instruments by hand. Lanaro confirmed that he had made instruments for the dealer but had heard that the dealer had replaced the labels.

No one knows why the dealer changed the labels, but the additional information from Mike supports the conclusion that someone wanted Lanaro’s violins to appear older than they were. Mike told me that in addition to the backdated label, his violin has a neck graft. He found that odd since a neck graft is a repair found on all 18th-century violins, which harken to a day when violin necks were shorter than the modern custom. Only rarely, where the neck or instrument is broken, would a neck graft usually be done on a modern instrument.

My violin has what appears to be a peg bushing repair. That repair is done to older instruments when the pegs have worn away the holes, so they are too large. There isn’t enough friction to keep the pegs in place. If the pegs slip, it is difficult to keep the instrument in tune. Given that my instrument was less than 15 years old when I obtained it, it doesn’t seem likely that peg bushing would have been needed. Although many luthiers will attempt to conceal a peg bushing repair, the one on my instrument is obvious and uses a different color of wood.

Just as an opportunist may have tried to “backdate” my violin’s label, law enforcement, and news outlets, including ABC News, CNN, Kiplinger, and USA Today are warning consumers that by abbreviating the year 2020, they may make themselves vulnerable to fraudulent backdating. This article discusses the merits of this concern and best practice for signing legal documents.

What is the Concern With Abbreviating 2020?

There is particular concern about abbreviating 2020 because the last two digits are the same as the first two digits of the century. Using only two digits to indicate the year of a document, January 1, 2020 would be 1/1/20. This gives fraudsters the opportunity to backdate the document to an earlier year, such as 2019, by adding two additional digits. Also, by adding two additional digits, a document could be unlawfully postdated to a future year, such as 2021 or 2022.

Those who warn against abbreviating 2020 theorize that a scammer could backdate a document, such as a promissory note, to 2019. After that, the scammer could try to collect an extra year’s interest on the loan.

Commentators express similar concerns about postdating--that someone could change the date to try to cash a stale check. Or, they could try to force performance of an expired contract by make it appear that the contract was signed later than it was.

Is the Concern a Valid One?

The concern hasn’t been without detractors. They point out that in 2019, a document with an abbreviated date, 1/1/19, might have been changed to reflect the year 1999. Yet, there is less risk of a document that is backdated 20 years being believable than a document backdated only one year.

On the other hand, concern about altered legal documents is hardly new. For many years, college students altered ages on their driver’s licenses to make them appear to be old enough to drink. Check washing, illegally modifying checks to increase their dollar amount, has been around for decades. Those alterations might initially appear to be successful. However, underage drinkers frequently are caught, and washed checks usually are discovered when returned to the account holder.

Regardless, there is a greater risk of a document’s date being altered if the signer uses only two digits for the year than if the signers use four digits. If anything, the publicity about the possibility of a two-digit year being changed to four-digit is intended to inform consumers and encourage them to use four-digit year notation. However, it equally informs criminals of a way they might be able to defraud someone with a backdated or postdated date.

How Could an Altered Document Impact the Signer?

Law enforcement and news outlets have expressed their concerns about date alternations. But, it would be difficult for a fraudster to match the ink used to sign a document and pass it as an original. Although the bank might cash an altered check, the customer likely would succeed in challenging it and getting their money back. It would be even more challenging (and risky) for a scammer to sue a consumer for additional interest on a fraudulently backdated promissory note.

However, it takes time and is a hassle for a consumer to remedy a fraudulent document. It can be expensive, too, if the consumer must hire an attorney to help fix the problem. Credit problems from bounced checks or other problems may show up on the consumer’s credit reports and take months or years to correct, all of which can take its toll. Therefore, similar to identity theft, the biggest risk altered documents pose to signers is the time, money, and hassle of challenging and correcting the document’s date, rather than a loss from the fraud itself.

Document Signature Best Practices

By adopting best practices for document signing, consumers and businesses can minimize their risk from altered documents. These guidelines aren’t new and aren’t only applicable to abbreviated dates—they apply to document signing generally.

Use a Digital Signature

Using a digital signature can help prevent fraud. Digital ids are issued by several reliable providers, including Adobe Sign and DocuSign, which comply with federal and state signature laws. These services provide users with a public “key” they must use to sign documents. When signed, the documents include a unique number and date. Plus, many services store documents in a cloud drive, which will provide proof of when and by whom the document was signed if an altered document appears.

Sign in Blue Ink

Where a digital signature isn’t possible, sign documents in permanent ink, not pencil or erasable ink. It's easier to tell if a document is an original if it is signed in blue ink. Blue inks have more color variation than black ink, so it will be more difficult for a fraudster to match the color of a handwritten date or signature.

Yet, with the proliferation of color copies, blue ink isn’t as helpful as it was when nearly all copiers printed only in black and white, making it easy to tell copies from originals signed in blue ink. Using a ballpoint pen and pressing hard to make an indentation in the page so the original is detectible, can make it easier for someone to identify the original document.

Maintain Time-Stamped Copies

Before sending a document, make an electronic copy with a time stamp. Most photo software and .pdf creator software will track when the copy is made.

This doesn’t stop someone from altering the documents. However, good recordkeeping can make it easier to challenge an altered document. By providing strong proof of the document’s actual date, it will help counteract any subsequent, fraudulent change. It also may be helpful should a document later be altered to backdate it, because it creates a contemporaneous version of the document as originally signed.

Use Cover Letters and Contemporaneous Communications

When sending a document, use a brief, dated cover letter stating what document was sent, and maintain a copy of the cover letter. The same can be done with an email transmission. Like the use of blue ink, contemporaneous communications won’t prevent document alteration. But they will help the signer to prove the actual signature date if the document later is changed.

Use Paper

I’m a huge advocate of electronic records. They save time, money, and storage space, are better for the environment, can be accessed from anywhere, and if stored in the cloud, are nearly immune to destruction by fire or another casualty. Yet, it is more difficult to alter a paper document than an electronic one. Certain legal documents, such as promissory notes, deeds, and mortgages, must be delivered in paper format. Others may be where the circumstances warrant it.

Why You Shouldn’t Abbreviate

Umberto Lanaro did everything right when he made Mike’s and my instruments, and he properly labeled them. Someone found a way to “backdate” the violins, but they didn’t cover their tracks. The neck graft, peg bushing, and the dealer certificate that didn’t match the violin label, all provided hints that someone might have tried to make our instruments appear older than they are.

Similarly, a scammer might change the date on a document but likely would leave behind clues that the document’s date had been changed. Using paper, signing electronically or in blue ballpoint, and maintaining proof of when the document was delivered can help a signer contradict an altered date.

So, it doesn’t create a huge additional risk to use an abbreviated date. Yet, it also doesn’t hurt to use the full year in a document signed in 2020–or in any other year. If nothing else, by writing the full year on a document, the signer might deter a scammer from modifying that document, so they move on to an easier mark.

This series draws from Elizabeth Whitman’s background in and passion for classical music to illustrate creative solutions for legal challenges experienced by businesses and real estate investors.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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