Company simplifies e-signature

Eighteen months since President Clinton signed a law making electronic signatures as legally binding as their ink counterparts, the use of electronic signatures remains rare.

Bill Stratigos, president of Comfidex Corp., thinks he knows why and says he has a solution.

Digital signatures are too complicated and too expensive, Stratigos contends. But offer people a simple, cheap way to submit signed documents online, and they will use it.

That's what Stratigos says his company has done with FormFiler, a product it introduced in December.

FormFiler creates an electronic form that the user — an applicant for federal benefits, for example — fills out online. As the form is being filled out, the FormFiler assigns it a "unique identifier," probably a bar code.

When the applicant is done, he prints out and signs the form; then he faxes, e-mails (if the printed form is scanned, it can be e-mailed) or mails it to the agency.

Meanwhile, at the agency, all of the information from the form is stored in an electronic file tagged with the bar code. When the signature arrives, it is matched with the electronic file.

The advantage to the agency is that an employee does not have to key the information into the agency's system, cutting processing costs from about 50 cents per form to as little as 6 cents, Stratigos claims.

The advantage to applicants is that they can transact business with agencies from any computer through a relatively simple process without having to have a digital signature.

Digital signatures cost at least $15 a year, require holders to give personal information to the digital signature issuer and tie the user to the computer the signatures are installed in, Stratigos said. "If I'm John Q. Public and I want to do seven or eight transactions a year with the government," digital signatures are too cumbersome.

"We felt the simpler the solution, the more likely it is to gain widespread acceptance by the general public," he said. "This process is simple. It's not rocket science, but it works."

However, Charles Kolodgy, an Internet security analyst for IDC, said there are even simpler methods of sending signed documents via the Internet without using digital signatures.

The Internal Revenue Service, for example, has made it possible to file completed tax returns fully electronically. The IRS system uses an encrypted password as a digital signature, and there is no need for additional mail, e-mail or faxes, he said.

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