Assistance Animals

Spotting the Signs of ESA Fraud

John Bradford
August 11, 2022

    As more and more communities allow pets onsite, most operators are seeing an uptick in assistance animal accommodation requests. It’s no secret that there are bad actors trying to pass their pets off as assistance animals to circumvent pet fees and restrictions. This is why having a thorough and consistent review process of each accommodation request is paramount.

    In over 100,000 reasonable accommodations requests already reviewed by PetScreening, nearly 60% were returned to the animal owner as insufficient. In other words, the accommodation request did not meet HUD’s 2020 Assistance Animal Notice guidelines. This is often due to documentation that is missing or contains incomplete information, is lacking specificity, has out-dated documentation and a variety of less common factors.

    It’s important to note that when a request is deemed insufficient, that definitely doesn’t always equate to fraud -- although there are a few tell-tale signs to look for when determining the legitimacy of such requests. For instance:

    • If a healthcare provider questions the validity of his/her signature
    • If the date on the supporting documentation appears to have been altered
    • If a name in the supporting documentation appears to have inconsistencies

    In the event that you encounter any of these “ifs” or other indicators that seem questionable during your review of an assistance animal request, additional expertise and diligence during the review process is likely warranted. Fraud is a very serious matter and, if suspected, you should navigate this cautiously and carefully. It is well within your rights to seek additional information during the review process before making a final determination of the request which may include the denial of the accommodation request.

    Note that there is a difference between being pet-friendly and permitting assistance animals in a community. When allowing pets on property, operators can charge pet fees and impose restrictions, but those fees and restrictions cannot be applied to legitimate and approved assistance animals.

    Furthermore, if the reasonable accommodation request for the assistance animal is determined to meet the HUD/FHAct guidelines, then a housing provider cannot prohibit animals based on breed, size or any other characteristic. These pet-related restrictions are often the motivation behind many of the fraudulent requests.

    Under HUD’s updated Assistance Animal Notice, “assistance animals” have been bifurcated into two distinct categories: service animals and support animals. For support animals, several types of animals may qualify and documentation from a variety of healthcare professionals is permissible. That makes the task of differentiating legitimate vs. fraudulent support animal requests more difficult.

    Service animals are limited to dogs only and the review inquiry process is significantly more narrowly tailored than that of support animals. One of the most notable differences is that no documentation can be required for a service animal.

    In the end, due diligence and vigilance on the behalf of operators is integral to identifying insufficient or fraudulent requests. And by enlisting a third-party to verify assistance animal requests, operators remove the additional workload of authentication and verification from onsite teams, freeing them up for other important tasks.

    While many operators do allow pets onsite in some capacity, not all are following suit. But when it comes to assistance animals, operators must honor the legitimate requests regardless of their stance on pets.

    However, identifying the bad actors trying to pass their pets off as assistance animals is something that requires an immense amount of consistency, diligence and time.

    Onsite teams should not be bogged down with the challenges and complexities of reviewing accommodation requests for assistance animals. Finding the right solution to complete the review process thoroughly and effectively will not only provide team members more time and save operators money, it will also help mitigate pet and animal-related risks while creating a more pet and animal-responsible experience for all residents in a community.