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My Failed Quest to Get Rich by Being a Notary Public

Or, My Attempt to Disrupt a Part of the Gig Economy That Needs No Disruption.

May 15 2018, 3:15am

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I am California’s only luxury notary. I own and maintain the website to prove it:

I did not become a luxury notary on purpose. I began my journey in the hopes of becoming a regular notary public, an "official of integrity" who "serves the public as an impartial witness in performing a variety of official fraud-deterrent acts related to the signing of important documents." I took a daylong course by the airport, paid all the necessary fees, and passed my state-proctored notary exam. I did this because I thought it would be a lucrative side gig. I was wrong.

Thanks to this error, I have rented a tuxedo, paid for an internet domain, and now hope that some rich dope in the San Francisco Bay area is willing to pay over $1,000 for the services of a luxury notary.

This is how I got here. I blame the gig economy.

Much like laserjet printers or Wolf Blitzer, the gig economy is an example of something that sounds much cooler than it actually is. First, there’s gig, which is what chill dudes call work. For example, being a paralegal is a job, recycling surfboards into coffee tables is a gig. Then, you have economy, which connotes money flow and income, things that may not necessarily be cool, but are helpful if you wanted to buy, say, a surfboard coffee table. The gig economy, however, struggles to live up to its promising moniker.

Were it semantically accurate, then the gig economy would represent a surfeit of fun, high-paying jobs that require little time. Instead, it’s merely a buzz term for on-demand employment tied to smartphone apps. And while these have benefits, like being able to start and stop your shift whenever you please, they don’t provide any actual benefits, like healthcare or overtime compensation.

You can tell the corporations making fortunes off the backs of gig economy workers are based in California, as so many of the jobs through them require cars. But I do not like driving. So Uber and Lyft were out. Beyond that, whether it’s Instacart, Caviar, or TaskRabbit, making extra scratch via an app-based job so often means being a courier. For folks like me who hate driving and/or don’t own a car, our options are limited.

Rather than use technology as an entry point, I instead wanted to try my hand at an ancient gig. I would become a notary public, and, ideally, become insanely rich. Notaries are a kind of technology in and of themselves—human Captchas who verify identities in person. Autonomous cars may replace Uber drivers one day, but a notary’s greatest qualification is the fact that he or she is human. That, and they can afford the $40 application and examination fee to become a notary.

I have long admired notaries. They have a relaxed yet confident sense of authority, like a park ranger or the person who jostles your safety bar on a roller coaster. They are the bouncers of life, checking IDs not outside of bars but inside banks, post offices, and FedEx Kinkos. They also charge for their services, meaning I could have a flexible stream of income and act as my own boss. Best of all, I wouldn’t even have to drive.

Modern notaries are members of a proud tradition whose lineage, according to the Colorado Notary blog, can be traced to ancient Sumeria. To become a notary is to embark on a journey into the past. I would be finding my place in history, not as a descendant of kings, but as something even more regal: the descendant of the guys who notarized stuff for kings.

In California, notaries are required to take a six-hour class and pass a test administered by the secretary of state’s office. I took my course and exam at the Oakland Airport Holiday Inn Express. What it lacked in glamor, it made up for with free coffee in the lobby. All the bathrooms required keys for entry, and this news sparked a minor panic among the caffeinated notary hopefuls who had gathered in the conference room. Was this our first test? Does the Notary Way require the taming of all bodily functions?

California requires prospective notaries to submit fingerprints for identification purposes, and we lined up to get ours scanned. This was performed by a third-party vendor, and while its setup of a Gateway laptop and USB-connected scanner didn’t look too Orwellian, the thought of submitting my biometrics to the state gave me pause. Still, the prospect of making some sweet notary coin kept me in line, and I began to daydream about future business plans.

When we took our seats, our instructor, Mary (name changed, as privacy is a major tenet of the notary code), introduced herself, and her raspy smoker’s voice portended to frequent breaks. She passed around a sheet we would each have to sign seven separate times throughout the day to confirm our attendance. My fellow students (I counted 28) all had notebooks open and pens stacked neatly before them. A woman a row ahead of me took gulps from a water bottle that intermittently blinked red to remind her when to hydrate. These are the types of people who become notaries.

Mary’s first order of business was a caveat, and it struck me like a Sumerian blade. “You’re not going to make money being a notary,” she said. “If you want to make a profit, do what I do and become a loan signee. I teach that course as well. Loan signees make their own schedules. I just drive from client to client, and I can make like four to eight grand a month doing it.”

I thought being a notary would be the perfect, lucrative side-gig. I have no interest in becoming a loan signee, which seems like a full-time job and apparently involves driving. Perhaps she was just pushing the loan signee course, I assured myself. Things looked bleak. Thankfully, there were only six more hours to go.

Mary read through some frequently asked questions and spent a disproportionate amount of time on whether a DUI could prevent you from becoming a notary. “This one comes up all the time, but DUIs are fine,” she assured us.

The state exam was difficult, Mary warned, but the company running the course offers a test-pass guarantee and lets you take the class over for free until you succeed. “I have a 98 percent pass rate,” she boasted, and a woman in the front row applauded wildly.

As Mary went through the coursework, she proved to be an affable and compelling teacher (especially given the dry subject matter), and the entire class stayed engaged for the duration. The woman who had applauded was perhaps too engaged, and she said, “uh-huh,” “OK,” or “yep” after every single thing Mary said during the six-hour session.

As we started to establish our notary base knowledge, Mary regaled us with examples of her real-life notary experiences. She frequently used the term “in the field” to describe notary work, which made me feel like we were cops at a precinct meeting getting ready to hit the beat. It was all very exciting. When she began a story about notarizing something for a cancer patient, concerned gasps bubbled throughout the class. “The woman made a full recovery,” Mary gave a theatrical pause, “and the document I notarized for her? It was the deed to her new house.” The class burst into hearty cheers. Mary isn’t just a master notary—she is also a skilled raconteur.

She gave us tips for checking IDs (Arizona drivers licenses are tough because the state lets you go ages without taking a new photo), as well as practice reps on some test documents. In California, notaries have an option to make people sign an oath to God, or to a general “higher power.” Mary told us to always opt for the “higher power,” as someone could later testify in court that they didn’t believe in God, thus making the notarization void.

Here are some other things that surprised me about being a notary: 1) It doesn’t matter what your signature looks like. 2) As a notary, you are an employee of the secretary of state. 3) Notaries don’t need to understand the content of a letter; it could even be in a foreign language. You only notarize the signature. And 4) It is against the law to advertise yourself as a notary in Spanish because notaries are lawyers in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, and to present yourself as such would be misleading.

The most a notary can charge in California is $15 per signature. When we learned this, a classmate raised his hand and said a notary once charged him $40. This riled up the entire class. Mary recommended going back to the store he'd been to to perform a sting operation, but the man kindly declined.

Notaries who overcharge are subject to a $750 fine. It is just one of the many potential penalties notaries can incur. Fail to apply a thumbprint in situations that require one? That’s a $2,500 fine. Accidentally give legal advice? Pay $1,000 to the state. Commit perjury? That’ll be $10,000 (and it’s relatively easy to accidentally commit perjury as a notary).

Toward the end of class, Mary asked who was taking the course at the behest of their employer. Most people raised their hands. A few worked for banks, others for title companies, and one guy was about to start at the UPS store. I was one of the few attendees who intended to strike out on my own, a significant risk considering I had no financial support from a larger company. What’s worse, I would have to find clients by myself.

To maintain the integrity of the exam process, Mary was forbidden from being present when the state proctors prepared to hand out tests, so she bid us adieu before I could ask for advice on how to build a client base.

The test contained 30 questions and was as difficult as advertised. We were responsible for knowing 180 laws, but Mary had prepared us for the content and rhythm of the exam, and her voice pinged in my head as I worked my way through the scan bubbles. She doesn’t have a 98 percent pass rate for nothing.

Upon completion, the proctor informed us we would have to wait up to 15 business days to get our results back. A man misheard and asked, “15 hundred days?”

With two weeks to kill, I put some feelers out around my neighborhood to gauge the demand for a notary service. The cashier at the grocery store gave me a flat-out “no” when I inquired if he could use one. My dry cleaner said she has used her neighbor, who is a notary, in the past, but if she ever needs something notarized in the future and I happen to be dropping off clothes, she’ll be sure to tell me (if she remembers to).

There are, according to Mary, 350,000 notaries in California. Given its population of over 39 million people, there is one notary for every 112 people in the state. Considering 23 percent of the state is under the age of 18, that leaves only 87 eligible customers for me because I can’t notarize the signatures of babies who have nothing to get notarized in the first place. Let’s say 25 percent of those people will need something notarized this year (a wildly optimistic estimate), then, at the maximum $15 price point, I would make $165.

Mary was being generous when she said you won’t make money as a notary. The reality is actually far more dire. Here’s my rough tally for how much it costs to become a notary:

Course: $79.95

Application: $20

Notary Exam: $20

Duplicate Commission: $10

Authentication Certificate: $20

State Seal: $5

Certification: $5

Shipping fees: $6

Surety Bond: $40

Stamp and Embosser: $100

Notary journal: $35

That’s $340.95. Meaning if I work my butt off to get my estimated 11 customers, I would make a grand total of negative $175.95. Some side-gig.

There was hope, however. It was a long shot, but, during class, Mary mentioned a loophole (though she didn’t refer to it as such). While California notaries are prohibited from charging more than $15 per signature, they can levy a “professional fee.” This is normally used to cover travel expenses, but I had a better idea, one that came to me as I noted the “luxury” services advertised on my dry cleaner’s wire hangers.

There are luxury cars, luxury hotels, and luxury dry cleaners. There are people who make custom sneakers for $10,000 a pair. If a product or service has a market, someone somewhere is willing to overpay wildly for it. But... where are the luxury notaries? The question may seem silly, but it’s the kind of thinking that brought the world UberBlack. By accident, I'd discovered a niche no one has yet bothered to fill. With the tech and gig economy, things aren’t “unnecessary” or “stupid”—they are “disruptive.” And, thanks to my idea, I’d bring a little Silicon Valley disruption to an old Sumerian line of work.

As I planted the seeds to this potentially lucrative side-gig, the state sent me my notary test results over email. Scores of 70 (out of 100) or higher are required to pass, and I aced it—I got a 79. In order to become certified, I still have to go into the county clerk’s office to take an oath and register, but, until then, I will be offering my services as California’s only luxury notary.

To do so, I obtained a tuxedo, took some photos, and bought the website URL. These extra fees totaled $157, meaning I was now $332.95 in the hole. I had no choice but to commit, so I outlined my services. In addition to wearing the tux, I'd also play classical music from a bluetooth speaker during ID check. I'd offer cheese and crackers. Only the good kind. (NO WHEAT THINS.) I'd offer a champagne toast at the completion of our transaction, naturally. I'd also call clients “m’lady” and “dear squire.” (This one is a maybe; I’m still workshopping it.)

Things are well underway for this enterprise. Beyond establishing, I have also printed out flyers to pass around the ritziest parts of town.

At just $15 per signature (plus a professional fee of $1,000), I can provide California’s classiest clientele with the notary service they deserve. Being a notary may not be a lucrative job, but it takes just one commission as a luxury notary to make it all worthwhile.

This desperate plan is likely my only chance to make any money as a notary. So please, if you have any wealthy friends or colleagues who enjoy the finer things in life, direct them to Lead the rich to my luxurious water. Let my tux, my fancy crackers, etc. be the blinking water bottle that tells them when to drink.

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