Portable Document Format or PDF has become a worldwide standard for sending documents by email or otherwise providing documents to others electronically. Because the format is so familiar and easy to use there is a tendency to assume the security of the document is also high-level and unchangeable.
Let’s take a quick peek at PDFs and things to think about when working with them in real estate.
It is considered ancient history in the consumer computing world, but the humble PDF was invented by Adobe in 1993, which for context predates the first iPhone by 14 years! Because there was no standardized format for the passing of digital information in document form, Adobe created the PDF format and made it free to use for everyone so that regardless of the format the document was created in, it could be converted to the standard PDF format and read on any device with free open-source software. PDFs today are the single most widely used electronic document format globally with some estimates placing PDF at 90 per cent of all electronic documents currently found on the web.
Common Does Not Mean Safe
As we have seen PDFs are the most common way to move information in electronic document form and real estate is no exception. Unfortunately, that common feel to use PDFs can cause us to let our guard down on the security elements of the document itself.
In general, it is possible to embed viruses in a PDF document which can infect the hardware that opens the file. Like all electronic files, you should be careful not to open files, even PDFs, from individuals or groups who you are not expecting a file from. If you do, be sure to open it in a trusted PDF reader such as Adobe Reader and be sure your anti-virus software is up to date as additional protection in case something slips through.
Real Estate Contracts
Pre-2000’s most real estate contracts were completed on four-part carbonless paper copies. This meant that all four copies were mechanically identical unless tampered with in some nefarious, albeit low-tech way. The forms were pre-printed using AREA standard format and wording. Fast forward to today and the contracts remain in standard format and verbiage but are almost universally electronic. This certainly has its advantages, but the harsh reality is that electronic forms can be altered in indetectable ways using editing software. Should someone attempt to alter the wording of a contract in electronic format, they could match the font style, color, and format and it could be virtually impossible to detect the changes unless a party is very careful to compare every contract to the genuine AREA versions. For this reason, it is crucial that REALTORS® source their AREA forms directly from AREA or one of its licensed forms providers to ensure the version of the form they are using is unaltered rather than relying on a version sent to them by another party.
Most electronic signing platforms today use technology to lock PDFs from editing once the initials and signatures are applied. That means that changes to a document after locking are difficult with a standard PDF editor. Problem solved right? Not so fast. Although it is difficult to edit a locked PDF properly, many commonly available PDF editors will allow erasure and insertion of text by way of drawing tools overlaid on the document itself. Once the document is flattened and converted to a new PDF these changes can be very difficult to detect. The best way to guard against this is to accept electronic signing PDFs only from the platform that produced them and sent them to you by email or downloaded directly from their servers.
The purpose of this article is not at all to provide an exhaustive list of security or situational vulnerabilities to using PDF documents but rather to provide insight into the reality that electronic documents have security vulnerabilities at all. Knowing what is possible can provide an opportunity to watch for signs of a problem, rather than assuming PDFs and other electronic document formats are inherently secure because they are electronic.
The best defense is to know the document thoroughly and do a quick comparison to a genuine version of a standard form if any anomalies show up. AREA's standard forms are for the exclusive use of its members and are not permitted by copyright to be altered in any way. Members may, by use of strikeouts and additions, alter the forms on their face during a transaction, but such changes must be completed transparently and acknowledged by the parties’ using initials.
Like all great tools, electronic documents such as PDFs make our lives easier and more efficient, but knowing the potential for misuse is the key to staying safe in a digital contract world.
Provincial Practice Advisor
Bryan has many years of experience in the real estate industry including over 10 years as a former broker in the Edmonton Region.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgPhone: 403-209-3619