Here’s how to make sure ESA characters are real

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) verification allows a disabled tenant to keep an animal in a rental unit. But landlords face the challenge of confirming whether the ESA letter is genuine.

Many companies offer ESA letters that certify emotionally supportive animals or supportive animals. Unfortunately, legal emotional support from landlords can be difficult to tell the difference between an animal letter and a fake letter.

To qualify for a support animal, a person must have an official letter from a registered healthcare provider. The letter confirms that the person needs a supportive animal or service dog. The reason may be for conditions such as depression, panic attacks, phobias, autism, ADHD, or physical disabilities. In addition, the letter gives tenants specific rights that other pet owners do not have.

Be sure to give your potential tenants the benefit of the doubt – they may not know their letter is fake.

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What is an emotional support animal?

Support animals are trained or untrained animals that provide emotional support or perform specific tasks. For example, a sighted dog can guide a blind or visually impaired person and perform other necessary tasks. Or an animal may provide therapeutic assistance to a person with a mental disorder or mental disability.

According to the HUD, housing providers must provide reasonable housing to a person with a disability, including a service animal shelter. This means that the “no pets” or “no animals” policy does not apply to anyone with a valid ESA letter. In addition, it is illegal to require a pet deposit or increase the rent due to a psychologically supportive animal in the rental unit.

Having an ESA letter means that the animal is not a pet. Instead, it is a therapy animal or supportive animal that performs specific actions to support a person with a disability.

The challenge of identifying fake ESA characters

A potential tenant screening may require processing an ESA letter. However, identifying ESA scams is increasingly challenging. “There are a preponderance of shady companies that sell ESA letters to any applicant who partners with unethical mental healthcare providers,” a 2018 report said.

In addition, the report states that ESA letter mills are a thriving industry. The challenge facing landlords is catching forged documents.

For example, an ESA letter must come from a licensed medical professional, such as a therapist or doctor. However, some people cannot afford to go to their primary care physician or they may not have one. In that case they can get a valid ESA letter online.

But, of course, there are plenty of online ESA scams, and some people with disabilities are victims of scams. Therefore, if a potential tenant wants to keep a psychologically supportive animal, thorough pet screening is understandable.

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How to tell if an ESA letter is valid

It is important to ensure that the documentation is valid for an emotionally supportive animal. And it’s not just landlords who need to make sure the document isn’t fake – tenants should also make sure they’ve received an ESA letter from a reputable company.

Here are some suggestions on how to look or get an appointment for ESA documentation.

  • Instant service. It takes time to evaluate whether someone is eligible for ESA. Instant approval is a certain red flag.
  • ESA registration. There is no legal requirement to register a pet, and a registration number does not mean that the pet is an ESA.
  • The healthcare provider has no information. There is no contact information in the ESA letter or the healthcare professional’s license information is usually a fake document.
  • No contact information. Contact information should be provided in a valid ESA letter. A homeowner can use it as part of the screening process.

If you are a landlord, you can also use some of the information above to verify the validity of an ESA letter. For example, does the ESA letter contain contact information for the healthcare provider? Does the healthcare provider’s licensing information check with your state’s professional licensing database?

If you are a landlord, what else can you do to avoid ESA scams?

  • Pet testing services. Invite potential tenants to screen a pet online. While this will not confirm the support status of a service animal, it will help determine whether it is classified as an ESA. In addition, legitimate rent applicants, including a service animal, will not object to pet screening.
  • Get official confirmation. You can request that the healthcare provider send you an ESA letter directly. The HUD states that “documentation from the Internet, by itself, is not sufficient to reliably establish that a person needs a non-observable disability or a disability-related supportive animal.”

Landlords can ask additional information from potential tenants to assess the validity of the ESA.

Can landlords deny tenants who have an original ESA letter?

You cannot deny a housing request to a tenant or potential tenant because they have a supporting animal and a valid letter that ESA confirms. Not allowing pets in a rental unit is not a valid reason to reject a rental application or expel a person who has an ESA.

However, there are certain conditions when you can reject an application with ESA.

  • The animal is too big for the rental unit.
  • The animal is not a domestic animal or is usually domesticated. For example, the HUD guidelines prohibit animals as legitimate service animals, such as monkeys, farm animals, and kangaroos.
  • The building has only four rental units, one of which is occupied by a landlord.
  • Animals harm others or cause significant damage to buildings.
  • The potential tenant wants to rent a single-family home, and the owner owns less than three single-family homes.
  • The service animal will cause unreasonable hardship to the landlord or property owner.

Before taking action against a tenant who claims to have a support animal, it is always advisable to seek legal advice.

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