If you’re a property owner with a no-pet policy, it’s important to know that some of your renters may be legally eligible to live with animals in your building. If they are, they’ll need to make a request for reasonable accommodations using an ESA letter.
But not all ESA letters are valid — out of 100,000 reasonable accommodations requests reviewed by PetScreening, 60% of them were returned because of insufficient information.
This is an issue for residents as well — unfortunately, many services providing ESA letters are illegitimate.
Whether you’re a property owner or a resident with an ESA, keep reading to learn how to spot a fake ESA letter or fraudulent ESA letter service.
Emotional support animals are a type of assistance animal meant to help people with mental health concerns or disabilities. Not only do they provide companionship as a pet would, but they also help to alleviate symptoms of mental disabilities.
The HUD states: “Emotional support animals by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress.”
ESAs are called “animals” because they aren’t regular pets. While pets have no legal protection in housing, ESAs do.
So what makes an animal an ESA instead of a household pet?
A pet is any type of domestic animal owned by residents. This category of companion can be any species or breed.
While cats and dogs are common, many people also choose to adopt reptiles, small mammals, or birds.
On the other hand, an emotional support animal is an animal that provides comfort and companionship as well as emotional support. These can be all sorts of animals that traditionally serve as pets.
ESAs don’t require special training, but they do need to be prescribed by a licensed medical health practitioner. Without a prescription, an ESA is just a pet, which means they’re not protected by any laws.
Keep in mind that ESAs are different from therapy dogs. While an ESA will provide companionship and support to its owner, therapy dogs go with their owners to volunteer in places such as hospitals and nursing homes. They’re selected for their temperaments and go through rigorous training.
What about service animals? A service animal is trained to perform specific tasks to help people with a disability. Some of these tasks can include:
Service dogs don’t provide emotional support. The only exception is for psychiatric service dogs, which do much more than merely provide emotional support. These types of service dogs make their owners feel safe and can even create physical barriers between their owners and other people.
Only dogs or miniature horses can become service animals.
An Emotional Support Animal letter, an ESA letter for short, is an official letter from a licensed medical professional that states someone has a disability that requires the help of an ESA. Essentially, it’s a prescription for an emotional support animal.
ESA letters aren’t the same as ESA registrations or certificates. Keep in mind that there’s no such thing as an ESA registry, which means you don’t need to accept certificates or registrations as proof of a valid ESA.
Someone who wants access to housing in an otherwise pet-restrictive property can present an ESA letter along with a reasonable accommodations request. Additionally, anyone may present a request for reasonable accommodations if they belong to one of the protected groups identified by HUD.
According to the Fair Housing Act, someone with a certified ESA and an ESA letter can’t be denied housing, even if you have no-pet policies in place.
This also means you can’t discriminate against someone with an ESA when looking for new renters. Even if a new renter omits telling you about their ESA before signing a lease, they’re still entitled to live in their unit — as long as their ESA letter is valid.
ESA letters also protect renters from pet fees or pet rent. On the other hand, you can apply a pet fee or pet rent to other pets the renter owns that aren’t ESAs.
You can also refuse to rent to someone who has other pets, even if they have an ESA. For example, a prospective resident has a dog as their ESA but also has a cat as a pet. You can deny them based on the cat if you have a no pet policy in place. As long as you’re not refusing access strictly because of an ESA, it’s within your rights to have no pets in your rental units.
If you’re a renter who’s eligible to have an emotional support animal, there are many benefits to asking for an official ESA letter from a licensed mental health care provider.
First, you can legally live with your ESA in any building, even when there are no-pet policies in place.
This can simplify your search for accessible housing if you struggle with a mental health disability. As long as you have a recent, valid letter from a licensed medical practitioner in your state, you’ll be allowed to live in any rental property.
An ESA letter can also save you money. Even pet-friendly properties sometimes charge pet deposits or pet rent to those who have pets, but property owners can’t charge you pet fees or pet rent because ESAs aren’t pets.
On the other hand, they’re allowed to charge you the fee if you have other pets that aren’t ESAs or if you somehow have a invalid, or fake ESA letter. Remember, it’s always best to go through proper channels to protect yourself and respect your property manager.
If you have a dog that’s part of a restricted breed in your rental property, you can get around breed restrictions, too. Unless the property manager can prove this breed of dog would prevent them from receiving insurance coverage, you should be allowed to remain in your unit.
Keep in mind, though, landlords can reject your ESA, whether a dog or another animal, if they can prove that the presence of the ESA would create an undue hardship for them in some way.
Some examples of this include if a dog has a history of biting and poses a danger to other residents, if an ESA is a large animal like a horse and can’t reasonably fit in the property, or if it would cost the landlord undue hardship to accommodate the animal.
As a property owner, you need to do your due diligence when it comes to requests for reasonable accommodations, but renters should also be wary of fake ESA letter services that scam ESA owners of their hard-earned money.
Here are telltale signs of fake ESA letters to help both renters and property owners protect themselves.
The first sign to watch out for when you’re talking to a healthcare provider about an ESA letter is the screening process. In order to know whether you qualify for an ESA, a licensed mental healthcare professional needs to speak with you and go through a screening process.
If an ESA letter provider doesn’t require a screening process before providing you with an ESA letter, there’s a good chance it’s a fake service.
Another thing to know is that ESAs don’t have to be registered anywhere. There’s no such thing as a registry for emotional support animals. So if you come across a service that calls itself a “registry,” stay away.
A trustworthy healthcare provider should also provide you with follow-up after your prescription. If the service doesn’t offer follow-up, there’s a good chance your ESA letter will be invalid.
Finally, any service claiming they can give you a letter instantly is disingenuous.
Any real ESA letter needs to be written by a licensed mental health professional or counselor (LMHP). While there are several types of licensed counselors, only LMHPs can prescribe an emotional support animal.
If you see a letter signed by someone lacking appropriate credentials, your renter has likely provided you with a fake ESA letter. However, they may not realize it, so keep this in mind when discussing the matter.
Likewise, if contact information for the medical professional is missing from the letter, or the letter shows licensure in another state, you may have a fake ESA. All the information should be present in case you need to contact them for verification. Furthermore, you have the right to refuse an out-of-state ESA letter.
Another fake ESA letter giveaway? The ESA letter in question is missing details about the animal. It should contain information about the identified ESA like its type, breed, and name — the letter should be specific to be valid.
If you’re unsure about the ESA letter verification process, you can skip it entirely and have PetScreening do it for you.
Here’s what to do if a current or prospective renter presents a false ESA letter in their request for reasonable accommodations.
Before you make any rash decisions, start by giving your renter the benefit of doubt.
The renter may not know they have a fake ESA letter. They may not know about all the laws and regulations in place. Or, they may have been scammed by a fake ESA service.
It’s possible they’ll be as upset as you are when they learn the bad news.
The first thing to do is to let your renter (or future renter) know the exact reasons you’ve refused their ESA letter. For example, you can specify if:
Be respectful during your exchanges and document everything in writing. Even if you have a verbal conversation with your renter, make sure to follow up via email. A paper trail is good advice for everyone to follow.
Doing so proves that you’ve done everything reasonable to get the situation sorted out amicably. This will help if your dispute goes to court.
You can also prove that you’ve remained polite and cordial.
Now that you’ve straightened things out with your renter, let them know what information you need from them to resolve the issue.
You can’t legally ask for specific information about their disability, such as a diagnosis. However, you can ask to know more information about the licensed medical professional who prescribed the ESA.
If the medical professional isn’t licensed or is located out of state, you can let them know that a new ESA letter from a licensed provider within your state is required. Tell them what information you’re looking for so that they don’t fall for fake services.
As home prices continue to soar and more and more people choose to rent, consider switching your pet policies to become a pet-friendly property.
Keep in mind that 70% of households have pets. By opening your doors to more pets, you’ll also have an easier time finding high-quality renters. Switching to a pet-friendly policy can also go a long way to driving resident retention because residents who want to adopt new pets won’t have to move to do so. This will save you time and money screening prospective residents.
This new outlook also opens up the other income possibilities.
Going pet-friendly can help you drive additional revenue. Not only can you start charging pet deposits, but you can also add the following:
As a property owner, know that pets aren’t your enemy. The national average for pet damage is only $191 dollars per year, so there’s not as much risk as you might think for properties that allow pets. As an additional security net, you can make pet training and pet insurance a requirement for your residents.
Additionally, if the renter who provided a fake ESA letter already lives on your property, you’ll also avoid costly court fees trying to evict them.
Property owners need to perform due diligence to spot fake ESA letters. This process can drain away time and resources that could be used better elsewhere.
Luckily, there’s a way to simplify the ESA verification process and mitigate the risk of ESA fraud. PetScreening takes the entire pet and assistance animal verification process off your hands — and it’s free!
Schedule a demo with a Pack Member to see how you can benefit from PetScreening.