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How To Spot ESA Fraud as a Landlord

December 4, 2022

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How Can You Spot ESA Fraud?

As the number of landlords allowing pets to live in their rental properties increases, most are also seeing an increase in emotional assistance accommodation requests.  

And it’s no secret that some tenants are trying to pass their pets off as emotional support animals to avoid pet fees and restrictions. Even worse, some tenants are victims of scammers themselves, so it’s important to inspect their ESA letter no matter what. 

A thorough review process with a clear understanding of ESA fraud red flags is the best approach. 

Unfortunately, you shouldn’t just accept requests at face value. 

In this article, we’re going to cover how to spot ESA fraud. 

What is an Emotional Support Animal? 

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) or an Assistance Animal is an animal that provides mental relief to its owner, who may experience one or more identified psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, stress, psychotic disorders, etc. An ESA doesn’t need any special training. ESAs don’t have limitations when it comes to what emotional support animals are allowed, (dogs, cats, gerbils, etc.). ESAs can accompany airplane owners, but they don’t have the same right to access public areas as trained service animals. 

Checking the ESA Letter 

An ESA letter is the document a potential tenant gives you that shows a mental health professional’s official recommendation for an emotional support animal (similar to a prescription for a medication).  

People can now get these letters online, which helps scammers create fake letters and makes it more difficult to verify the legitimacy of these letters. This is why it’s critical that you’re vigilant with your process.  

Here are major elements to keep an eye on as you review letters: 

  • Instant approvals are a huge red flag. It takes time to determine if someone qualifies for an ESA. Therefore, make sure you look at the dates in the letter carefully. 
  • Missing healthcare provider information is another big red flag. ESA letters should contain contact information and a healthcare professional’s license information. It shouldn’t be an issue for you to contact the healthcare provider and verify the legitimacy of the document. 
  • Inconsistent names or terminology is another red flag. The letter should be professional and consistent.  

If you encounter any of these red flags or other indicators that confuse you during your review of the request then you’ll want to investigate further. If you suspect fraud, go with your gut and follow your intuition. You’re well within your rights to seek more information during the review process before making a decision about the request.  

It’s important to understand that there is a distinction between being pet-friendly and allowing assistance animals on your property. As a landlord, you can charge pet fees and impose restrictions on pets, but those same fees and restrictions cannot be applied to legally and medically approved assistance animals. 

Beyond that, if the reasonable accommodation request for the ESA meets the necessary legal guidelines, then you cannot prohibit animals based on breed, size or other characteristics. This bears mentioning because these restrictions are sometimes the motivation for many fraudulent requests. 

Under The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) updates regarding assistance animals, they’ve been separated into two different categories: service animals and support animals. When it comes to support animals, many kinds of animals may qualify and documentation from a number of different kinds of healthcare providers is permissible. Naturally, this means that differentiating legitimate letters from fraudulent ones is now more arduous. 

ESAs and Your Rights 

Pet screening is another vital part of this process. Applicants with a legitimate ESA won’t mind the screening process because they need the animal and have nothing to hide. It’s one more way to learn about the animal and gather more valuable information. 

It’s also important to note that you’re allowed to request the ESA letter directly from the relevant healthcare provider. HUD states that “a housing provider may ask an individual with a disability to provide in support of an accommodation request for a support animal, including documentation of a disability.” 

HUD also goes further, stating, “documentation from the internet is not, by itself, sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal.” This means you can, and should, require your tenant to have their healthcare provider send the ESA letter directly. 

Even though the Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination based on a tenant’s mental status, it doesn’t give the tenant’s ESA unlimited rights. The ESA owner is still responsible for any damage caused by the ESA, including things in your rental, personal injury, etc. Therefore, if any damage is caused by the tenant’s ESA, it doesn’t give them immunity to compensatory payments. 

Taking it a step further, the owner needs to have “reasonable control” over the ESA. In other words, the animal cannot cause other tenants harm, inflict damages on other properties, etc. And, if the tenant’s ESA fails to obey the rules set forth in the lease, then you can consider taking legal action. Essentially, this allowance doesn’t give the tenant or the pet the freedom to do anything they want without any repercussions. 

Conclusion 

If you feel uncomfortable with an ESA request, consult with an attorney. ESAs were put in place for good reason, but people still will try to take advantage of the system. Therefore, it’s up to you to keep good practices and stay vigilant. 

You’re not out to “get anyone.” You just need to keep a keen eye out for fraud. And by taking this article to heart and carrying out the suggested actions, you will help your business immensely.  

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