Common document forensic features and tools to spot them

Educational documents are valuable credentials. Academic institutions invest in ways to protect them from being forged by incorporating security features into the document. Learning what security features are available and keeping a record of the features will aid you in catching forgeries.

Before you inspect the document, remember some of the following: 

  • Not all countries/institutions use the same documentation practices. 

  • Highly secured documents are more costly. Institutional budget may dictate what type of documents are being issued. 

  • Older documents contain older printing techniques. 

  • Authentic documents are usually consistent within the same time period. Forgeries are invented by various individuals. They are not going to be consistent.

Of course, most of these security features are only available on the original document. So we do recommend that at some point you examine an original document and become familiar with the features for each institution you work with. 

When you are ready to examine the security features, make sure you have the proper tools. Here are the tools we recommend:


Illuminated magnifying glass or microscope. 

This will help with viewing things like microtext or differentiating between printed ink and pen ink.

Detail of magnified document with microtext

UV light or blacklight. 

Some documents incorporate UV features.  A small portable UV light will let you quickly check a document. 

Document with UV threads under blacklight

A lamp or other bright light source. 

Simply holding the document in front of bright light can reveal security features like embedded fibers or a watermark.

Detail of document with embedded fibers and watermark

Mobile device camera. 

The camera on your cell phone or tablet will let you access QR codes. You can read more about using QR codes for verification here: https://theconnection.ece.org/NewsItem/1480

Detail of document with QR code

Your sense of smell and touch. 

Ok, technically the scent and feel of documents aren’t security features.  But your senses of smell and feel can be one more input in determining authenticity.  When you become familiar with what type of paper a document is usually printed on, whether it’s heavy stock paper or thin parchment paper,  anything that varies can be a clue that something is amiss.  We’ve also found over the years that certain documents have a unique smell.  Maybe it’s the paper, glue, ink, or where the paper is stored - we don’t exactly know. But if something doesn’t smell right about your document… it might literally be that something doesn’t smell right!

Detail of textured document with raised seal

If you’ve kept records of which documents contain which features, it might be time to investigate further when you find a document missing a feature.


Majka Drewitz is a Research and Evaluator Supervisor and Senior Evaluator. She has been with ECE since 1999. Majka authored ECE Insights: Evaluation Tools for Russian Credentials and co-authored the third volume of ECE’s Education in the Commonwealth Caribbean series. She is a frequent trainer for the EAIE Academy. 


Related Resource:

For more information about document forensics and how to use tools to spot them, watch our ECE e-Learning on Fraud and Authenticity. 

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