FAKING IT: Scammers Hurt Legit Service Dog & Emotional Support Animal Partnerships

Elderly Man with Woman Petting Dog

All images courtesy of DepositPhotos.com

I have friends and colleagues who train and/or partner with service animals, including ESA — Emotional Support Animals. I’ve also been aware for some time that unscrupulous folks fake credentials to take advantage of what they consider to be furry perks, like taking their dog with them into businesses and restaurants, or (a biggie!) getting pets into no-pets-allowed housing or on planes for free.

Scammers offer fake credentials supposedly out of the goodness of their heart–but of course, for a fee. Both the fake-paper-pushers and the service-animal-fakers argue, “Who does it hurt? It’s a victimless crime.”

It hurts the business, the reputation of legitimate handlers and dogs, and even the animal and his owner-faker. Read about just a few of the issues here. The only entities that make out like a bandit are organizations supplying fake paper and lining their pockets.

Reality Imitates Art–Or Vice Versa?

Actually, I’ve been researching this a bit for background in my next thriller, since the main character September Day has a service dog Shadow, who helps mitigate issues with her post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For instance, Shadow alerts in advance of panic attacks, and helps anchor September to the present during flashbacks, among other things. PTSD, debilitating migraines, seizures, diabetes, IBD and other health concerns can be helped enormously by trained service dogs. But these “hidden” issues open the door to abuse in a way that service dogs partnered with visible/physical challenges may not face.

I hadn’t planned to blog about this, at least not yet. Then on January 1, 2015 I received an email interview/story “pitch” that purported to offer reputable, legal help for those seeking ESA credentials. Frankly, the message raised alarm bells, and when I got sick with the “crud” I delayed doing anything about it. I wasn’t sure how to handle it.

Man holding tabby cat with big green eyesCredentials, Conflicts & Confusion

Heck, I’d love to take Magical-Dawg with me more places, and he’d love that, too, especially if they served bacon! Karma-Kat certainly offers me lavish emotional support, as does any animal friend with whom we share a bond. Besides, who would know–According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a business owner is only allowed to ask two questions:

  1. Does the dog provide a service?
  2. What has the dog been trained to do?

Under ADA guidelines, only DOGS qualify as service animals (sometimes miniature horses qualify), and PETS are not considered service animals. The dog must be trained to provide a SPECIFIC SERVICE for SPECIFIC DISABILITIES.

Sadly, this is easy to fake. Dogs are not required to wear any kind of identification like a vest. Heck, you can order a FAKE vest for your animal, too! In reality, a real service dog/human partnership isn’t required to show documentation for training. There is no single over-arching government-endorsed training agency for service dogs.

But it’s not just the ADA that offers guidelines and regulations. The Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA, administered through the Department of Transportation) also provide what can be confusing or even conflicting regulations.

Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act follows the ADA definition of service animal (dogs only,) and EXCLUDES those designated as emotional support animals. However, it does state that reasonable accommodations should be made for any service animal including ESAs. To qualify, the person is evaluated by the housing provider based on answers to the following questions:

  1. Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability —i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
  2. Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?

Portrait of the girl with the iguana Air Carrier Access Act

ACAA doesn’t restrict Emotional Support Animals to dogs–they can be cats, birds, hamsters, lizards, goldfish–anything at all. Most airlines do require the animal to fit under the seat as “carry on” luggage, though. Rather than a case-by-case evaluation, airlines typically require a signed letter from a “licensed mental health professional” (not just your general practitioner). The letter must include:

  • The professional’s address and phone number
  • State that you have a disorder listed in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.
  • You also must be under active treatment for your disorder by this “mental health professional.”

Ditch the Pitch? or a Big Reveal?

Remember that email pitch mentioned in the opening paragraph? Yesterday I got a LinkedIn request for a connection from a person with the same name. So I decided to reply with some pointed questions, indicating I’d like to include them in a possible future blog. Most of my questions arose from the lack of detailed information posted on the website. There were no names, no credentials listed, just a lot of generalities and promises.

The website offers an online evaluation of your completed questionnaire by a (unnamed) board-certified psychiatrist. When that evaluation confirms your qualifications, the expert then generates a letter that qualifies your ESA and thus allows plane or housing privileges afforded to service animals. For a fee, of course. If your answers to the questionnaire fail to qualify you, the fee is promised to be reimbursed.

I figured a “no response” would be telling. So I was happily surprised to receive a prompt response with detailed answers, which I’ve cut-and-pasted below. I will leave it to readers to make judgments about this particular service.

Q & A with National Center for Emotional-Support Animals

Hello Amy!

Thank you very much for your interest. Please see my responses to your questions below.

Who are you? What is YOUR background in pets? Is this you?

Yes, that’s me. I’ve had a dog for the past 10 years and a cat for the past 16.

Who is your “board certified psychiatrist” ?

My husband, Jamie Feusner. He is the co-founder of National Center for Emotional-Support Animals. (Amy’s note: I googled the name and found more about Dr. Feusner here)

What board certifies a psychiatrist to diagnose a patient over the Internet?

Our letter does not constitute a diagnosis. It recommends an ESA to help treat the problems that you are currently experiencing.

Why does the pop-up invite someone to get a FREE “ESA Letter” but then require a credit card to submit the questionnaire for $150?

The offer is buy an ESA letter for housing for $149 and as an added bonus, we provide a letter covering air travel, worth $149, free. Other services charge to each letter separately.

If, indeed, someone qualifies for an ESA, why would they need an annual letter for another $150 each time?

The letter itself never expires. It’s dated the day that it’s mailed out. The issue is that airlines and landlords do not accept letters that are dated more than a year old. In addition, people have to retake the questionnaire because their symptoms and health problems can change. What they said a year ago may not be the case today. No doctor can write a recommendation or prescription for someone in perpetuity. They have to be re-examined at least once a year.

What percentage of your applicants do you turn down as “not qualified” for an ESA and actually refund the fee?

None. Everyone who has come to us have [sic] met the medical qualifcations [sic] to get an ESA letter.

Are you not concerned that unscrupulous individuals would manipulate the questionnaire/answers to get an ESA letter for which they do not qualify?

The medical questionnaire is the same one a psychiatrist would give during an in-office visit. Mental health treatment for the most part is provided based on self-reported symptoms — unlike other health conditions that can be physically measured with tests. If people lie on the medical questionnaire, they could also lie during an in office visit. Psychiatrists have to take people at their word. You may deem someone as “unscrupulous” or that “they do not qualify” but that’s just YOUR opinion and judgement of them. It doesn’t make it true. Mental illnesses are invisible. A person may look and act completely normal yet still suffer from a mental illness.

Your Turn…

Okay, gang, what do you think? How would you characterize such a service? I did fail to ask one question–does a questionnaire answered by a mental health practitioner constitute “being under active treatment for your disorder,” as required by the ACAA?

What about you? Do you think “fake” service animal credentials is a victimless crime? Are you, or do you know someone partnered with an amazing service animal? How could the “rules” be changed to improve the situation you?

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Comments

FAKING IT: Scammers Hurt Legit Service Dog & Emotional Support Animal Partnerships — 24 Comments

  1. WOW this is a very thorough article. I know this is a very hot topic and rightfully so. My dog goes most places with me. When it comes to stores or businesses where he is not allowed, I am honest here: My spouse and I take turns watching him outside.

    It makes me so sad and it is such an outrage that there are fakers who ruin it for the people who really require a service dog. You did the right thing calling these people to task. It seems pretty scammy to me what they are doing.

  2. sounds squirrelly…..how is a doctor who is never seen anyone allowed to diagnose something based on a paper questionaire? our rescue doesn’t even adopt animals without talking to the person face to face or over the phone. you would think that the medical profession would certainly frown upon their members being involved in a “business” like this as well….I can’t imagine that the AMA or whomever allows for diagnosis of any diseases – mental or otherwise just through a questionaire

    • I know that some veterinarians have gotten into hot water simply offering “general” info online, not even diagnosis. That’s why I asked specifically about the diagnosis. To be fair, the letter is said not to be a diagnosis but rather a “recommendation” and perhaps that’s how it’s managed. *shrug*

  3. Amy, I’m glad that you covered this. About a year ago, I was in Walmart and an older couple had a small poodle with. I spoke an assistant manager and she said that once they had refused to let a woman in the store with a small dog. This lady claimed that this was little dog was her emotional support. She raised such a ruckus (I don’t know if she threatened to suit) that they let her in. So they let other people in with pets. I haven’t seen any other dogs in Walmart since that one time. I wouldn’t trust a diagnosis from a psychiatrist over the phone. The are M.D.’s first and my doctor insists that I come into to see him if I have a problem.

    • I know of a couple of folks locally who DO have legit ESA. It’s such a tricky and difficult situation because businesses don’t want to infringe the rights of legitimate partnerships. *sigh*

      • If I had a Service Dog I would be pleased that my ID be ligitimate & shown when asked. I see FAKE Service dogs in Restaurants, Grocery Stores, etc. etc. Wal-mart, etc. If postings of what the ID should be like on any and all establishments would be helpful. I have 2 Therapy Dogs, all the shots, etc. have to be up to date. I take them to Schools, Nursing Homes, Hospitals on an INVITE and I have to produce ID & shot papers. The FAKE Service dogs ….I am guessing may not be up to date on shots, etc. and can cause a problem. I see fakes more and more as in every time I am out somewhere. Personally, I would not do this. Send $$ on line and they can get you into everyplace…Movies,and all …..

  4. The fact that they’re charging for these “ESA letters’ tells me they’re bogus. Something is very, very fishy here… And even if it’s somehow legal, it’s unethical as all get out. And then there’s this: “None. Everyone who has come to us have met the medical qualifcations [sic] to get an ESA letter.”

    Seriously???

    Whatever professional and/or certification organizations Dr. Feusner relies upon for his “official” career need to know about this…

  5. Very thought provoking post! It’s not a victim-less act because the more fakers there are the greater the chance of service dogs losing credibility and one day losing All-Access rights. I didn’t realize an establishment can ask what the dog is trained to do; that seems like a violation of a person’s health privacy. How do you answer that without revealing that you have PTSD or Panic Disorder and then risk being judged? I’d love to bring my Husky on a plane or inside restaurants but I wouldn’t lie to do so, it could potentially jeopardize a true service dog’s rights one day! People should be required to obtain such documentation from a doctor that has diagnosed them, not just A doctor that you haven’t even seen.

    • I suspect that it would be a bit more difficult to “fool” a doctor in person, than by answering an online questionnaire, never mind it’s the same one use in-office.

      Also, those who plan to get a “fake” letter I think would be less likely to attempt an in-person evaluation.

  6. Thank you for such an eloquent article on a touchy subject. I too have been followed and contacted by fake service dog companies but I just ignore them. My passion about fake service dog crime, that damages the lives of countless innocent people everyday, is just too hot for me to respond as you did. I could go on and on about the friends and family I have with real, highly and specially trained service dogs, who have been discriminated against because of fakers. A fake service dog attacked and injured my friends real service dog and she had to live without an essential tool for weeks. Faking a service animal is like stealing a wheelchair. It’s despicable. And any company offering any service dog credentials for profit, no matter how hard they try to make it sound real, are a scam and should be prosecuted.

  7. My mother has had a guide dog since I was in the second grade. She has had several guide dogs. They come with an ear tattoo, easily recognizable harness, and identification. Some of these “service dogs” actually have caused problems for us. I have no problems with legitimate service dogs, including ESA, but, the scammers on both sides of the issue are enough to make me crazy. Fake service animals do very real harm to legitimate service animals, and when a local restaurant asked for the dogs ID, my mom and I were happy to comply, even though that is actually illegal, and they probably will get into trouble at some point. I totally agree with Bethany.

  8. I just read this post from a woman on Facebook: “Officially registered my Betsy as an Emotional Support Dog, just ordered her little red vest, and waiting on her identification card to come in the mail. I can legally take her with me anywhere and everywhere. Muahahaha”. As a disabled person with a legitimate Service Dog, this angers me as I definitely feel these people are a threat to the safety of others and to our service dogs whom we rely on everyday. I didn’t choose to become disabled, so it amazes me that just because they feel entitled to take their pets with them everywhere, they pretend a disability or a mental condition in order to do so. Totally disgusts me and I hope one day the ADA will implement procedures to combat the fakes and scammers to protect the rights of those who truly need these animals to live life……this is reality, not a reality show.

    • So very sorry that this clueless person would flaunt such a flagrant illegal action. Sad and truly upsetting that the person apparently thinks nothing of it. Absolutely correct–it’s reality, not make believe.

      • What is also upsetting is the comments to her post stating a lot of them know people who do this all the time, she just posted a photo of her dog wearing a vest stating it’s a “Service Dog”, totally not the same thing as an ESA and a flagrant violation and I am seriously angry she is flaunting it.

        • Perhaps someone *cough cough* could link this blog post to the thread? Is there a reportable agency that could “out” such flagrant disregard for the law? Actually, it’s apparently not “illegal” to purchase fake vest/credentials and no mechanism that I could find that punishes such things. But it surely is unethical. I can’t imagine if her need was legit that she’d make light of the situation. For shame!

  9. I am an Advocate for STOPPING these Fake ESA scams! I do have a legitimate ESA dog letter prescribed by my psychiatrist of which we have a ‘history’ (patient/doctor relationship). Is it even LEGAL for these scam sites to dx a person from afar, especially using a questionnaire to diagnose and thus writing an ESA letter? I would like to know if a consumer uses these fake ESA letters and found out, can they be fined? Also, can the Fake Company be fined? Pls send any legal info. Thank You. Melinda.

    • Hi Melinda, I’m sure that there are legal ramifications to misrepresenting yourself and pet as ESA-approved partnership. I would assume (but I am not an attorney!), that filing charges would be up to the municipality in which the misrepresentation takes place. The doctor certainly could be investigated and possibly sanctioned by the appropriate board/organization should complaints be made.

  10. Well not all people are fakes I not and I got a letter by phone witch they tell me it’s not legal I’m out of a 149.00 they told it was legal but I have a thing about a turpist yep they can be fooled big time I had a bad experience with them they can only talk to you you tell em what to hear had a sister commit suicide the Dr told us she wasn’t gonna hurt herself or anyone well she didy brother did and my daughter tried it twice all) were under care but I need my ESA dog but I don’t want to have to go to psychiatrist don’t trust them they can be fooled why not let people alone let them decide I know there’s fake regerstration sites I registered mine on one first got to checking and registered mine at one that I found to be legal so if people does it what’s it to us you didn’t pay for it they will get caught one day they ought to controle these companies that does this fake stuff yes it will hurt outhers companys but not the ones that’s legally got their pets so what’s all the fuss I hate it when people judges outhers some of the people may realy need it but don’t have the money don’t judge and ye shall not be judged you don’t know what outhers goes through they may look fine speak smile but dying on the inside

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