Since landlords are well within their legal right to deny an applicant for owning a pet, some prospective tenants will try to find illegal ways to convince the landlord that their pet is actually an emotional support animal (ESA). Once labeled as an ESA, owners are allowed to have them in a rental unit that otherwise forbids pets.
What is an ESA?
Emotional support animals are prescribed by licensed professionals to help their owners feel more comfortable. They are not trained in any specific way, as a service animal would be.
For example, a service animal may be trained to detect seizures or to lead a blind person. An ESA does not need any formal training, as the benefit they provide is simply them being there.
ESAs are given more access to public areas than a regular pet (such as an airport, some stores, and of course, rental units), but are not given carte blanche like a service animal. Service animals are generally allowed to go into any public area.
Why Do Rental Applicants Try to Pass Their Pet as an ESA?
The main reason for applicants to try to scam a landlord into believing their pet is an ESA is to be able to keep the pet in the rental unit. Landlords can legally deny applicants with pets, or they can also:
- Require higher rent
- Require a co-signer
- Require a higher deposit
As far as rental units are concerned, ESAs do not count as pets and the tenant does not legally have to disclose to the owner that they even own an ESA (although that’s generally not the best start to a landlord-tenant relationship).
However, owning an ESA does not give the tenant freedom from property damages or eviction. While the landlord can’t keep an ESA out, they can charge extra for damages, or even evict the tenant if the ESA disturbs neighbors or destroys the property regularly. A tenant must be able to clean up after their pet as well or risk eviction.
Of course, a landlord will need concrete proof of anything before they can evict, as not having a good reason can easily result in a discrimination lawsuit.
9 Ways to Spot an ESA Scam
Here are the main ways to identify fake ESA letters:
- Not written by a licensed mental health professional – The letter must come from a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, nurse, or doctor. Interestingly, most don’t come from doctors but rather other professionals focused more on mental health.
- Not written on official letterhead – Health professionals will always use paper that makes it obvious it comes from their office. Fake ones try to look more general.
- Not registered in the state the rental unit is in – Even if the health professional is legitimate, they must be licensed to practice in the correct state.
- Does not include contact information – A legitimate professional will have contact information in case any verification is needed.
- Does not include date of issuance
- Date of issuance is more than a year old – It doesn’t matter if everything about the letter is legitimate if the letter is more than a year old. ESA letters need to be renewed yearly.
- Uses terms other than emotional support animal – The letter might refer to the ESA as a service animal when in fact it is not. The owner could have gotten a fake letter online, and paid a little extra to get the service animal label, which provides more access to public areas with their pet.
- The applicant provides an ID card, registration, or certificate – To try to pass off as legitimate, online scams may say they can add a pet to a “national registry” or be “officially certified” as an ESA. They can even have ID cards printed with the pet’s picture on it. This is all an attempt to make the scam more palatable. The only legitimate way to have a pet become an ESA is to have a mental health screening with a professional and a properly written letter provided.
- The letter says they can “take the animal anywhere” – ESAs still have many restrictions about where they can go, for example they are not allowed into theaters or restaurants. Service animals are highly trained for a specific action and are allowed into virtually all public areas. If the letter claims the ESA can go anywhere, it’s almost certainly a scam.
Attempting to pass off a fake ESA letter is actual illegal in many states, and can result in financial penalties or even jail time. If you come across this as a landlord, it’s a good idea to report it to the authorities.
What Does a Legit ESA Letter Look Like?
ESA letters are not flashy and do not make bold claims. They are a straightforward and official document. Here’s what a legitimate letter looks like:
- The letter is from a licensed mental health professional.
- It is printed on official letterhead with the health professional’s contact info clearly visible.
- The health professional’s license number is included and can be verified on the state’s website.
- Letter will usually not contain details about the patient’s need for the ESA as to avoid breaking privacy laws. Note that some landlords’ first inclination will be to reject an ESA letter as a scam if it doesn’t have details. This is done on purpose, and, with the applicant’s consent, the landlord can consult with the health professional to confirm the letter is legit (of course, without details of the patient’s condition being revealed even on the call).
Can a Landlord Ask if an Animal is an ESA?
Part of an ESA scam is that an applicant may say that the landlord is not allowed to ask about their disability. This is both true and false.
The Fair Housing Act specifically forbids discrimination due to a disability, so a landlord can certainly be sued if they talk specifics. For example, a landlord should not require proof and details of their disability.
However, landlords are legally allowed to ask for an ESA letter. If a legitimate one cannot be provided, then the landlord can reject the application.
If you are unsure about the specifics of dealing with discrimination for disabilities, be sure to read more about the Fair Housing Act as well as consult with an attorney familiar with your state and local laws.