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April 11, 2024

How to Spot ESA Fraud

Noah Goldman
Chief Operating Officer

It’s an all-too-familiar story that many landlords and property managers in recent years have had to address. Dogs, ducks, cats, snakes, pigs, and even insects, among other animals, have all been dubbed emotional support animals (ESAs) by tenants.

While much of the evidence is anecdotal, it seems apparent that trained service and therapy animals, and untrained emotional support animals can provide essential support for those with psychological and emotional issues.

However, with the increasing popularity of ESAs, it’s becoming more critical than ever for property managers to put into practice effective strategies to identify potential fraud in this space.

Distinguishing legitimate ESAs during the screening process – while protecting against abuse – requires a nuanced comprehension of the laws around support animals and practical approaches for recognizing the need for exploitation. This article is aimed at helping property managers and landlords new to the tenant screening process who are looking for tips on spotting ESA fraud as part of that screening process and overall risk management strategy.

As always, remember to review your state and local laws regarding service animals, support animals, and other relevant laws and regulations.

Definition of an Emotional Support Animal

As the responsibilities of landlords and property managers continue to evolve, one area that has gained noteworthy interest is the screening process for renters and their “pets.”

Before delving into spotting potential fraud, it’s crucial to grasp the true concept of emotional support animals.

Unlike service animals specifically trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities, ESAs offer comfort and emotional support through their presence. Individuals with qualifying disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations, including allowing ESAs in housing that may otherwise prohibit pets, under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

While the intent behind ESAs is just, the system can be vulnerable to abuse. Some tenants may attempt to exploit the regulations by falsely claiming their pet is an ESA to dodge pet restrictions or skirt paying pet-related fees.

Unfortunately, this can present a major challenge for landlords and property managers tasked with ensuring compliance while avoiding fraud.

ESA Fraud Stats and Trends

As most people know, trained service dogs are permitted in public places in the U.S. that do not allow regular pets. On the flip side, ESAs are typically not trained and only have access to no-pet housing like apartments and condos.

According to a recent article, one in four ESA owners obtained their ESA letters through internet sites versus from legitimate health professionals.

When it comes to rental housing, the typical U.S. apartment complex accepts pets; however, not without considerable restrictions. In fact, only 8% of rental units have no pet restrictions, as stated in the Pet-Inclusive Housing Report. In most cases, apartment communities typically have a weight limit on pets (usually around 25 to 40 pounds) and can ban larger dog breeds entirely. A limit of one pet per unit is also common.

Industry-wide statistics are difficult to find. However, many onsite property managers can account for the dramatic uptick in ESA accommodation requests in recent years. Verifying such requests can challenging, time-consuming, and often overwhelming for landlords.

How to Spot ESA Fraud

Navigating the landscape of ESA accommodations requires diligence, empathy, and a commitment to upholding the rights of those tenants with disabilities while safeguarding against abuse.

While most ESA letters are legitimate, staying cautious against fake ones is essential.

Here’s how to spot ESA fraud:

·   Always request documentation. Valid ESAs require documentation from a licensed professional, such as a psychiatrist or therapist, verifying the renter’s need for an emotional support animal. Be suspicious of nonspecific or easily accessible “online” certifications, as this could be a red flag of fraudulent claims.

·   Consider the relationship. Engage with your renter to gain insight into the nature of their relationship with the ESA. Genuine ESAs often have an evident bond with their owner and are a comfort source in managing their disability.

·   Evaluate for consistency. Keep a watchful eye for consistency in the renter’s overall behavior. Monitor and evaluate conversations related to their ESA. Inconsistencies or discrepancies in their storyline may raise red flags and necessitate additional research and investigation.

·   Study up on legal resources. Educate yourself about the applicable laws and regulations regarding assistance animals in rental housing, including FHA guidelines. Talk to legal legal professionals to ensure compliance while safeguarding against fraudulent activity.

·   Implement a pet screening process. Incorporating a comprehensive pet screening process, including background checks and vaccination record verification, can help distinguish legitimate ESAs while preventing fraudulent claims.

·   Continue open communication. Encourage open communication with renters regarding their ESA and your accommodation process. Maintain transparency and offer guidance on the paperwork required to support their request.

What to Do If You Find ESA Fraud in an Application

If you are a property manager, it can be challenging to distinguish between a legitimate ESA and a fraudulent one.

But for starters, it’s important to understand that property managers must accommodate legitimate ESA requests regardless of pet restrictions, and they cannot charge pet rent or other fees for ESAs. More importantly, not accommodating legitimate requests can make landlords subject to fair housing violations and the fines (or even lawsuits) that go hand in hand with those violations.

So, if you happen upon ESA fraud in an application, consider the following tips:

  • If you suspect service animal fraud, seeking legal advice before refusing accommodation to your renter is strongly recommended. A legal professional can confirm that a substantial case exists and serve as a buffer against legal complications if a court discovers that you have violated FHA regulations.
  • If you receive an ESA request from a renter, be sure to verify its authenticity. To start, ensure the letter is from a licensed professional. Most ESA letters include the health professional’s name, contact, and licensing info. The license number for health professionals can also be verified on your specific state’s website.

The Bottom Line

Navigating the landscape of emotional support animal accommodations requires focus, empathy, and a commitment to upholding the rights of people with disabilities while safeguarding against fraudulent activity.

By utilizing strategic, proactive measures, landlords and property managers can effectively identify and address fraudulent ESA claims, ensuring a fair and compliant housing environment for all renters.