In ancient China, engraved personal seals were used in legal documents to indicate consent. These conveyed higher status than handwritten signatures and are still used in the Orient for business transactions. In Europe, it was the other way round. Seals were used in medieval times but as the use of language spread after the Renaissance, people increasingly used just their names. Millions of dollars worth of transactions are today concluded on the basis of the handwritten signature. However, as a means of verification, handwritten signatures are highly prone to errors. According to Indian banking industry estimates, two out of 10 cheques presented are returned due to signature mismatch.

In the pre-liberalization era, every customer’s signature card was stored in a bank branch. To verify a signature, the card would be pulled out from the deep recesses of the branch’s back office and a comparison made. Around the mid 1990s, signature verification in banks became automated—to the extent that a customer would sign on a card, which would then get scanned. Now a teller compares the signature on a cheque with the scanned signature on the screen. The modality may have changed. But he still continues to exercises his subjective judgement on whether the signature tallies or not.

Time factor

This leads to piquant situations for the simple reason that unlike what we think, signatures do not remain static. Over time, sometimes unknowingly, signatures change for many adults. For senior citizens especially, the reason is often medical where due to weak nerves or an inability to grip the pen, a current signature can look very different from one made a few years ago. Many married women go through an initial dilemma of how to incorporate their husband’s name into their own. Vanita K. Singh may have signed her fixed deposit (FD) form as Vanita Kamat Singh at the time of opening an FD. Five years later when the FD matures, her shortening of the middle name will result in a signature mismatch. Unless she meticulously maintains old records, she will have to guess whether the issue is with the handwriting or the name itself. (This is one more reason why the wiser among married women stick to their original names.)

Signatures also change for whimsical reasons. For example, an actor may decide to add a flourish to his signature, in keeping with his star status. The unit-linked insurance plan (Ulip) he opened when he was a struggler may have a more sober signature. Plus, everyone has a formal signature and a hurried signature. When you have to sign 36 post-dated cheques (PDCs) for a loan, the line between the formal and the hurried becomes blurred along the way resulting in lack of uniformity in the signatures.

Consumer complaints forums are full of angry voices ranting about cheque return. With about Rs300 being levied as penalty per cheque bounce to each party, there is understandable angst about this.

Need for change

The financial world is slowly recognizing the need for a system more immune to frauds and errors. Enter biometrics—the system of automatically identifying an individual using his unique physical or behavioural characteristics, such as fingerprint or voice or even mannerisms. Biometric signature verification systems record characteristics of one’s signing style, such as the amount of pressure employed, the angle of writing or the formation of letters. So when, say, a branch receives a request for an ATM PIN, rather than checking if a signature is the exact copy of the one stored, the software checks for style of writing—inclinations of “h" or “k" or how a “t" is crossed.

Biometric signatures require a hardware device called a signature tablet on which the customer will sign. This increases cost and is the main reason for banks not rushing to adopt the system. The other reason is that even a biometric signature system will be foxed if a person’s style of signing changes. The first alphabet may become bigger as he acquires wealth and stature—graphologists attribute that to a building up of ego. The line below may quiver due to Parkinsons. The software will never know and the teller will have to intervene once again.

A less sophisticated solution—fingerprinting—may be the answer. Fingerprints have a universality as almost everyone has a legible fingerprint and can therefore be easily authenticated. They are also truly unique as even identical twins who share the same DNA have been shown to have different fingerprints.

The first modern use of fingerprints appears to have been in India during the mid-19th century, when William Herschel, a colonial official in Hooghly, used fingerprints to stop impersonation of pensioners who had died and to prevent rich criminals paying poor people to substitute them in jail. If the Indian industry adopts fingerprinting as a measure of verification, the wheel would come a full circle. Besides, it would give the term angootha chaap a whole new meaning.

Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd.