Addressing Service & Assistance Animal Fraud: Follow the Data

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You cannot solve a problem until you define it. This tenet not only guides my work, but it highlights an important and especially relevant issue today: Too often policies are driven by anecdotes and emotions rather than data and facts, making an objective analysis impossible. Targeting a solution to feelings rather than facts won’t necessarily resolvethe issue at hand and instead invites additional complications.

Case in point: the policies and laws springing up across the country in an effort to stop “fraudulent” requests of service and assistance animals. In support of the fraud narrative, many refer to the increasing frequency of these requestsand the ease of obtaining verification letters. But these facts, while indicative of the popularity of animal accommodation requests, don’t establish fraud.

Recently, Pet Screening released data analyzing outcomes of the 31,000 service and assistance requests they’ve evaluated since 2017, and I eagerly dove into the results. While I can’t comment on the robustness of the data without the raw numbers and a better understanding of their process, there are two eye-catching trends that bear noting:

  1. Fraud was detected in fewer than 1% of all submitted requests.

This blows out of the water the idea that the accommodation request process is rife with fraud. Interestingly, when fraud was found, it took the form of forged signatures and altered letters, not someone’s “faking” a disability or a related need for the animal.

2. Incomplete applications, not fraud, were the reason for non-approval.

After starting the interactive process to request additional reliable information in good faith, the requesters failed to provide sufficient verification. Without the necessary documentation, housing providers aren’t obligated to approve these requests. The resident’s failure to provide missing information is not evidence of fraud; it merely means that the individual chose not to complete the request.

This information is instructive for two important reasons.

First, fraudulent requests are virtually nonexistent, and viewing the issue through the lens of fraud is ineffective. Any policies developed through this framework are presenting a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Second, we now have a roadmap to solving the actual problem, which is the inadequate evaluation of accommodation requests.

From my experience, some housing providers will grant a request for an assistance animal once they are handed a verification letter, regardless of its contents. I’ve read many verification letters that had significant shortcomings, such as failing to establish the need for the animal or requesting multiple assistance animals without the requisite justification for each. Despite my counsel, I’ve had clients approve those requests without further investigation for fear of running afoul of discrimination laws. On the contrary, the best way to weed out dubious requests is to ask for more reliable information. And that’s a solution driven by data, not anecdotes.

Importantly, while caution is prudent, there is nothing wrong with asserting your rights in good faith. In this context, it means engaging in the interactive process and requiring verification that sufficiently establishes all prongs for a reasonable accommodation. The best way to uncover fraud is by properly authenticating verification letters. But be mindful that authentication should consist only of confirming the authenticity of both the letter and signature.

Moreover, the most reliable way to ensure the integrity of service and assistance animal requests is to follow HUD’s guidelines and assert your rights as a housing provider. This is a much simpler solution that produces the intended results for your community and eliminates any need for regulatory or statutory changes. The political process is long and arduous, and, frankly, state laws that criminalize fraudulent animal accommodation requests are ineffective because fraud simply isn’t the problem.

The takeaway from the data is salient and offers good news: You can protect your community by using the tools already at your disposal. No extra cost, no delays, and quantifiable results.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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