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What is the scam which has appeared during lockdown?
We were approached by a customer who had paid to have some of her documents certified and Apostilled online, as she was preparing for a move overseas and needed them to be legalised for her residence permit. She wasn’t sure they were done correctly, and wanted our professional advice.
Legalisation involves a series of verifications and stamps from official government departments, making a UK document legally recognised in a different country. This can include, but is not limited to, a solicitor certification and an Apostille stamp.
She had used an online service to have her documents processed, which promised digital certification in as little as 30 minutes.
As well as the certification, they are advertising official Apostilles at a third of the cost of those from the government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) with an impossibly fast turn-around.
This sounds like a great and convenient service at a time when most procedures are delayed and the majority of solicitors aren’t seeing clients in-person due to COVID restrictions.
Unfortunately, the website is a scam and anything provided to their customers will not be fit for purpose. Here’s why.
Getting a document certified by a solicitor – how it’s done right
To have your document certified, you must take the original to a registered solicitor or notary public. They will take a photocopy of the original, before applying their official stamp and signing the declaration that they have had sight of the original document.
Even though the term is often shortened to simply “certified”, the procedure is actually making “a certified copy of an original”. In order for this to happen and be valid, the solicitor making the certification must see the original document in-person. They will then include the date and wet signature which is valid for official purposes.
For a solicitor to be able to certify a copy of a document as being a true copy of the original, he or she would need to see the original document first.
Typically the solicitor would make a copy of the original document, or if a copy had already been made would compare that with the original before certifying the copy as being ‘a true copy of the original’.
Solicitor and Director of Kingswell Watts Solicitors
In some instances, when submitting a document for an Apostille, a certified copy is not acceptable. In the UK, this includes personal documents, namely:
- Birth certificates
- Marriage certificates
- Adoption certificates
- Death certificates
If you intend to have any of these documents Apostilled, only the original document can be processed, so you can simply skip the certification stage.
Having your document Apostilled – avoiding the fakes
Apostilles are issued within member states (currently over 110 are involved) of the Hague Convention. These are countries which have signed an agreement to accept documents from other member states with this single step of legalisation.
Some countries who issue Apostilles allow local courts to issue these verifications, such as in France. Other larger countries have several regional government departments charged with the responsibility, such as Australia, but in the UK, only a single official department has the authority to issue Apostilles. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office (FCDO), formerly known as the FCO.
This is listed on the official Hague Convention website which you can view here.
That doesn’t mean you have to obtain the Apostille personally to ensure it’s real. Many people choose to use an agent to get their documents legalised at the FCDO for them, simply for convenience. The general public are only able to apply via post, which can in busy periods take several weeks to be completed.
It can also be highly stressful and expensive if you’re outside of the UK at the time. Registered agents, however, have access to same-day in-person services at the FCDO which is great if you’re in a rush!
So how can you tell if your Apostille is real? There are several ways you can tell is you have a fake, which we will outline below, to ensure you don’t fall foul of the fraudulent practices appearing online.
Is the Apostille printed on the document or attached separately?
Firstly, an Apostille is always a tangible document. It can not be issued digitally and is not recognised for official usage if it has been photocopied. The Apostille itself is a small separate piece of paper which will be affixed to the reverse of your document. It will never be stamped or printed on.
What appears on the Apostille itself?
There are always 10 set pieces of information listed on Apostilles, regardless of issuing country. The solicitor who certified the document, or the registrar who signed your certificate will be noted, as well as the date and signature of the FCDO employee who issues it.
Are there are security features on the Apostille?
Where the official FCDO seal appears in the bottom left hand corner, an embossing will be placed through both the Apostille and the document itself. This ensures that the Apostille can not be removed and attached to something else.
Is there any official way I can check is my Apostille is real?
Yes, you can verify the legalisation on the government website with a unique reference number which appears on each Apostille. You just need the date it was issued, as well as the serial number.
So what do I need to watch out for to avoid getting conned?
Firstly, be wary of websites offering online “digital” certification and Apostilles. We can confirm we have spoken to a source at the FCDO who has advised they are aware of one online entity currently offering this fraudulent service and are working to ensure they cease trading. At Vital Consular, this is the first time we have seen this particular kind of scam, and acted quickly to get this information out to avoid anyone else becoming a victim.
Our customer who previously used one such service is now out of pocket and facing delays, having to re-process her documents correctly through the official channels. Thankfully, they got in touch with us directly and we were able to have their documents processed quickly and legitimately, with a 100% acceptance guarantee.
The website in question does use several tactics in order to appear legitimate at first glance. However, if you dig deeper there are several red flags, including no registered business information or address, which is a legal requirement for companies operating in the UK.
There are also no contact details such as a phone number or email to get in touch should you have an issue. Again, this is a legal requirement.
To get your documents legalised correctly, you will need to do things the traditional way to avoid any issues later on. A solicitor will need to make a certified copy for you, in-person. Although it is more difficult than usual at the moment, it is possible.
Next, if you require legalisation and need help, ensure you are choosing a reputable and well-established company. By doing a little due diligence, you can make sure they have independent reviews on their services and you are able to speak to a real person if you need to.
If you are unfortunate enough to have your documents handled by a sham company, you could find yourself facing major complications including:
- Delays whilst you start your certification and legalisation from scratch
- Further costs having to have them re-processed correctly
- If you have travelled with the documents, you could be stuck overseas with documents which are useless
- You could end up in hot water if your documents were required for important business or a legal process
The old proverb of something being too good to be true is certainly applicable here. If you’re unsure what you need, or whether your existing legalisation is genuine, just get in touch with our friendly team who will be more than happy to help. Feel free to leave a comment, get in touch via WhatsApp, or use our live chat system.
When things become difficult, there is very often someone happy to take advantage of the situation. In this case, people’s frustrations caused by the COVID lockdowns has created the perfect breeding ground for scammers looking to offer cheap, convenient yet fake services. When undertaking important processes with your documents, it’s necessary to research things properly and stick to the official guidelines. You will then avoid any delays, losing your money and potentially worse situations if your paperwork isn’t valid. Seek out a well-established and trustworthy source who will be there to support you.