Apartmentalize 2023: Catch Me If You Can . . . And I Bet You Can’t!

    Unfortunately, fraud is not a narrow topic in the apartment world. It arrives at properties in various forms, and scammers are becoming more sophisticated in the ways they aim to circumvent the system.

    Tactics include altered identities, counterfeit paystubs, modified bank statements, fake employment verification, and yes, illegitimate assistance animal requests. PetScreening Senior Director of Multifamily Pat Patterson moderated the educational session Catch Me If You Can . . . And I Bet You Can’t at NAA’s 2023 Apartmentalize in Atlanta, guiding a high-level conversation in which panelists shared their experiences with fraud and what they are doing to combat it.

    Daniel Berlind, CEO of Snappt, noted that approximately 10 million fraudulent documents are submitted to the apartment industry annually, which equates to approximately 1,250 per hour. Of the more than 3 million financial documents scanned by Snappt, which verifies the authenticity of financial documents, the company discovered that one in eight is illegitimate. That is an alarming trend, especially when one considers that fake financial documents are responsible for approximately 25% of evictions and the average eviction cost is $7,500.

    “It’s well documented that there are entire fraud rings out there, and they’re creating a fake person from the ground up,” Berlind said. “They’re producing all the identity documentation and financial documentation that you’d expect, then passing this fake person in front of you.”

    Identity verification and income verification platforms continue to be developed, along with tools to analyze an applicant’s rental history more effectively, enabling the industry to fight back. But not all fraud falls into the bucket of someone trying to scam their way into a home. As Patterson astutely noted, it extends to pets and assistance animals, as well.

    Applicants frequently attempt to pass off their pet as a service animal or support animal, like an ESA, aiming to escape pet fees, pet rent or to work around a community’s restricted list. These attempts consist of falsified and altered documents, forged signatures, purchased ID cards and invalid online certificates. Complicating matters, rules surrounding what property teams can and can’t ask about service animals and support animals can be confusing.

    Stephanie Thornberg, vice president of Avenue5 Residential, recommends that property teams become familiar with the HUD guidelines on assistance animals.

    “When you talk about the different types of animals, you need to make sure that you know the terminology,” Thornberg said. “And always start from a place of ‘yes’ with accommodation animal requests. If a resident is requesting a reasonable accommodation, we assume they need it, and we’re going to work with them to accomplish that task.”