Lawmakers Seek to Curb Fraudulent Companion Animal Requests

by Chris on January 14, 2019

The Utah State Legislature is mulling a statute that would criminalize fraudulent companion animal requests.

The move comes after extensive news coverage of perceived companion animal fraud, most recently involving airline passengers. Companion or emotional support animals (“ESAs”) are controversial because, unlike service dogs, ESAs can be any animal — squirrels, peacocks, ponies — and do not have to be specially trained to be in public.

Regulations related to the Fair Housing Act, along with many similar state anti-discrimination laws, require landlords to allow tenants with disabilities who have been prescribed a companion animal by any health provider to keep the animal at the rental property despite any landlord rules regarding pets.

The problem is the ease at which non-qualifying tenants can abuse the ESA regulations to keep pets in a no-pets property or to avoid paying pet fees. For example, several websites have popped up offering to “certify” pets to qualify as companion animals. Some of these websites enable non-qualifying tenants to pass off ordinary pets as ESA animals by coaching individuals on symptoms of various disabilities, streamlining the diagnosis of a disability, and offering guarantees that a prescription letter will be provided.

While some sites might be legitimate, others create “medical” evidence of a disability or prescription letters over the phone or via the Internet. Landlords who are witness to these abuses are frustrated over the one-sided implementation of the companion animal rules.

The Utah measure would provide that anyone who:

Intentionally misrepresents to a landlord or other person that the animal is a service animal or support animal;
Misrepresents a material fact to a health care provider for the purpose of obtaining documentation necessary to designate an animal as a service or support animal; or,
Uses an animal to gain special treatment or benefits only provided for an individual with a disability,

Is guilty of a misdemeanor and can be prosecuted.

Last year, South Dakota lawmakers passed similar legislation. The South Dakota law targeted the prescription letters provided to landlords by limiting providers who could write prescriptions to only licensed health care professionals and blocking letters from websites known to operate “solely to provide certification for service or assistance animals.” Landlords in South Dakota who receive a fraudulent request have the right to evict the tenant and are entitled to up to $1,000 in damages.

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.

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