With any growing market opportunity, scammers always try to find a way to exploit well-meaning customers for a profit. Emotional support animal (ESA) letters are no different. If you’re a renter looking to certify an animal as an ESA, it helps to be mindful of what to look out for to ensure that your pet is adequately certified as an emotional support companion. Otherwise, you can risk your pet being rejected as part of an apartment application process or other fines and penalties imposed by landlords for housing an illegitimate ESA.
According to some estimates, a staggering 70% of emotional support animal letters are fraudulent. Many tenants start the ESA process by searching Google for healthcare providers who can help them certify an animal. While it’s possible to find legitimate providers buried in the results, it’s helpful to know what the process entails to ensure you are obtaining an ESA letter the right way.
Here are a few key things to look out for when finding a healthcare provider to certify your pet as an emotional support animal.
Many of the webpages buried in search results lead to unlicensed clinicians who provide completely fraudulent letters in exchange for a fee. These websites may look legitimate, but, ultimately, they are complete scams and produce letters for people without a legitimate process to verify that you are qualified to certify your pet as an emotional support animal.
The best way to ensure that you don’t fall victim to one of these scam providers is to ask for their name ahead of time. If they refuse to send it, that’s a red flag. If you are able to obtain the name of the practitioner who will be signing your letter, check the state board for their licensure. These records are free and easily accessible to anyone. If you’re unable to find their name with an active license, it’s likely a scam.
Be wary of providers who actively advertise their ESA services. Some of the advertisements you may see for providers will be well designed and enticing. Many providers have gotten good at promoting their services on blogs, forums, and across social media. Their websites will be professionally done with testimonials and reviews that make it seem like a legitimate, seamless process.
Legitimate mental health providers do not offer flashy advertisements or exclusively promote their ability to sign ESA letters. Although some of these flashy providers may be licensed, they are often ESA “mills,” meaning they unethically let their signatures be used to sign ESA letters after you fill out a form and participate only in a short interview.
“Pay to Play” Schemes
An evaluation for an emotional support animal should be a legitimate process from a healthcare provider. They should take time to assess the potential risks and unanticipated outcomes before making a prescription for you that may have a negative impact on your well-being. Some states also require a minimum of a 30-day working relationship before an ESA prescription can be written.
If you find that the provider you found doesn’t require a full evaluation of you and your condition, that’s enough to be suspicious. The process should not be as easy as it may seem. If they just want to collect a fee and issue a letter in exchange, move on.
These illegitimate processes to obtain ESA verifications can be easily verified by landlords and property managers. As part of the initial lease or a separate pet agreement during your tenure at the property, virtually all landlords now require documentation of your pet’s ESA status. This helps protect both people and property and ensures that tenants are not intentionally avoiding pet fees or “no pet” policies by dishonestly classifying their pet as an ESA.
You can avoid these schemes (and potential disqualification of your animal) by seeking out legitimate providers. Oftentimes, the best idea is to ask your family doctor or general practitioner for a referral or recommendation. If the cost of finding the right health professional is a factor, consult your health insurance provider first. Oftentimes, mental health services are included or greatly discounted as part of your plan.
If you have fallen prey to one of these websites thinking that it was a legitimate way to obtain reliable documentation, we are sorry. You are not alone. If you ask for your money back, most of them will try to avoid it by asking you to intimidate your landlord. In these instances, point them to the HUD and ACA guidelines. In most cases, they will relent and issue you a refund. Otherwise, you may have to start the process over with a legitimate provider.