Unholy Apostilles: Intermediaries Fleece Unsuspecting Applicants For Government Document Credentialing

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

A concerning practice has emerged over the years where intermediary service providers proffer to obtain apostille certifications on behalf of the those unfamiliar with the credentialing process for documents sent overseas. Unscrupulous providers charge hundreds and some over a thousand dollars for several documents while a typical cost assessed by each state’s secretary of state centers around fifteen dollars per document.

Most of these providers are unregulated and operate from virtual offices or use addresses traceable to private mail box companies such as the UPS Store. Some go so far as making promises of authenticity under legally questionable guises.

In the United States, Apostilles are issued by the federal government and officials in the several states. From the U.S. Department of State:

An Apostille is a certificate issued by a designated authority in a country where the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalization of Foreign Public Documents. Apostilles authenticate the seals and signatures of officials on public documents such as birth certificates, notarials, court orders, or any other document issued by a public authority, so that they can be recognized in foreign countries that are parties to the Convention. In the United States, there are multiple designated Competent Authorities to issue Apostilles, the authority to issue an Apostille for a particular document depends on the origin of the document in question. Federal executive branch documents, such as FBI background checks, are authenticated by the federal Competent Authority, the U.S. Department of State Authentications Office. State documents such as notarizations or vital records are authenticated by designated state competent authorities, usually the state Secretary of State.

State issued apostilles typically are issued by state secretaries of state. Here is a sample from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office.

Authenticating an Oregon Notarization

The procedure is simple. Send the original, notarized document to us, or bring it to our office in Salem. We charge $10 for each apostille. You need a separate apostille, or authentication, for each notarized document. If you bring it in, we will do the apostille/authentication while you wait – normally less than 20 minutes for each document.

Authenticating a Vital Record

When you need a vital record (birth/death certificate, marriage or dissolution of marriage certificate, etc.) authenticated, you should first get a certified copy of the record from the Oregon Center for Health Statistics. A certified copy of a county record is not appropriate. Only the Oregon Center for Health Statistics can issue a valid, current vital record.

After you get the vital record, send the certified copy to us, or bring it to our office in Salem. We charge $10 for each apostille. You will need a different apostille, or authentication, for each document. If you bring it in, we will do the apostille/authentication while you wait – generally under 20 minutes.

Authenticating a Transcript or Diploma

When you need an Oregon high school or college transcript or diploma authenticated, you must have the person in charge of the records – normally the registrar – sign on the record a statement certifying to its authenticity.

Send the original, notarized document to us or bring it to our office in Salem. We charge $10 for each apostille. You will need a separate apostille for each notarized document. If you bring it in, we will do the apostille/authentication while you wait – normally less than 20 minutes.​​​​​​​

While the process for obtaining certification of various documents remains straight-forward, few individuals are aware of the process or find themselves under time pressures after discovering that an apostille is needed for authentication of birth certificates, adoption records and notary seals.

In the vacuum created by this lack of understanding, numerous entities of questionable repute and practice came into being seeking to capitalize on the confusion and offer services as an intermediary to file these documents on clients’ behalf, usually in exchange for hundreds of dollars per document. The service is entirely unnecessary though several of apostille intermediaries claim otherwise. The service most offer amounts to simply forwarding documents to government offices and little else.

An internet search engine query returns a high ranking of these intermediaries, most above those of official state websites. I sampled nine of these providers and some trends are common.

The first provider offers service from the high 100s to the low three hundreds of dollars per document with translation services provided at an extra fee. Though this site did claim to offer a screening service to determine if the client’s documents met the standards required for filing at a minor cost and did link to the various secretaries of state websites explaining that apostilles could be obtained by the client without the need of their service. As for the translation of apostilles, that is of questionable utility in general since the convention only requires that the French phrase “Convention de La Haye du 5 octobre 1961” be affixed to the top of the apostille, though there might be individual translation requirements made by various countries of official certificates. Strictly speaking, it is not required for apostilles.

Another site also offered its services in Spanish which brings up the matter where immigrants who are less likely to be familiar with the operation of the U.S. and state apostille processes can be easily lured into accepting that intermediaries are needed in order to secure verification of documents. They are also likely to not scrutinize the fees.

A common element of several was a website that displays a list of corporate clients ranging from major banks to financial institutions. In fact, Hollywood celebrities rank among those allegedly being customers of these intermediaries. There is no credibility to the claim that a large bank or corporation will use such services from these entities when any legal department or responsible person of those companies would not simply pay, in Oregon’s case, ten dollars per document and file with the state directly, especially when such intermediaries have their office location listed at a UPS store or a Virtual Office.

One service in particular offered by most involves having an expedited, same day service where allegedly documents can have copies certified and notarized–and proffering that this meets the legal requirements for document authentication. The common program involves the client emailing the subject documents to the intermediary who then either notarizes the document themselves or uses a third-party. Next they personally convey the document to a secretary of state’s office for an apostille verifying the notary’s provenance. The primary issue with using this service is that it does not properly notarize a signature of the document maker–the signatory must be present before the notary–and instead only certifies the authenticity of the intermediary derived notary. It is in effect a notarized copy presumably but it does not qualify as an official record for the purposes of government documents such as birth certificates, which must be original. Those believing this expedited service will accredit a document might discover later, after paying hundreds of dollars, that their documents were rejected by the foreign entity.

I believe that it is necessary that some form of oversight be legislated, preferably by Congress, to address the problems inherent with intermediaries in apostille filings, especially since most transactions involve interstate commerce. But at the very least some level of public education will be of benefit.

By Darren Smith

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

10 thoughts on “Unholy Apostilles: Intermediaries Fleece Unsuspecting Applicants For Government Document Credentialing

  1. Great article. This racket was news to me, but not surprising, as no regulation usually results in people being at least taken advantage of and often outright screwed. Of course, the apologists for unfettered capitalism will say that the “free market” will solve the problem, and/or they’ll blame the victim as responsible for his or her own fleecing.

    Yes, in theory, a free market can work — but only with at least a certain minimum level of competition, information flow, rationality, and morality. In practice in most of the modern world (as well as most times and places of the past), all four seem to be in short supply.

  2. Excellent article, Darren, and it covers an issue that I don’t think I’ve ever seen addressed before. I should not be surprised that so many of these intermediaries have popped up, and when I just tested Google for search results for “Apostille,” the results were, unfortunately, for these intermediaries, rather than my state secretary of state. This means that Google is really driving the traffic to these unnecessary and expensive intermediaries.

    Getting an Apostille comes into play most often when documents are submitted to courts or institutions in foreign nations that require them to further authenticate those documents. You may ask, “Aren’t notarized documents enough?” And the answer is often “no” because the foreign nations that are receiving those documents require this additional level of assurance to accept those documents.

    Most often the Apostille certification, when needed, is done through the state’s secretary of state department. Some states makes this easy, like Oregon, which Darren uses as his example. Washington, California, New York, and Pennsylvania also make the process fairly easy and simple with online instructions. The fee is nominal ($10 to $25 per document is typical). And in the end, the state where you’re getting the Apostille certification will send you your document with the Apostille document with an impressive, nifty gold seal attached. Your document is then ready to go to the court (or institution) in the foreign nation that required this level of certification.

    As Darren indicates, though, the Apostille certification only comes into play when you’re sending documents to a foreign nation (court or institution) that is a party to the Hague Convention. So that means most of the nations of the civilized world, but excludes such nations as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, or Somalia, for example. (Get the pattern?)

    And sometimes even the Apostille certification is not enough. I’ve seen circumstances where documents needed further certification processing where the party presenting the document had to go to a local consulate office of the foreign nation that was to receive the document. But if this circumstance should arise, the party has to go personally to the consulate office with the document(s), booked through an appointment in advance, so there’s no intermediary involved.

    So, if you, members of your family, or your clients ever need to get Apostille services, remind them to do it directly through the appropriate state (or to the U.S. government, if appropriate) and make sure you or they are only dealing with website addresses that tie directly to the appropriate government agencies. The fee should always be nominal; similar to what you’d pay for an official birth or death certificate. And the government service is surprisingly fast as far as these things go.

  3. Yeah, these guys are crooks and something ought to be done about it, but that’s not really the pressing question of the day, now is it?

    I have a question for Jon: are you on Fox’s payroll? If so, I think you ought to disclose this to the public. I ask this because last night, that snarky bottle blonde on Fox called you to comment on McCabe’s firing. This was at 10:00–something at night. Let us know, please.

  4. Fraudulent cottage industries spring up where there are unsuspecting victims. Immigrants are especially susceptible, because they may not question someone sounding authoritative who tells them this is how it’s done.

    Notarizing without the signatory present is regulated. The notary should lose his or her license for doing so, unless they are specifically notarizing it as a copy. That scam should be actionable.

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