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
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