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Emotional support animals are big business in the U.S. at the moment. The emotional support animal movement started gaining traction a few years ago and, as it stands in 2019, shows no signs of slowing down. ESAs help to treat prevalent symptoms of some of the most common mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and autism in children. An ESA functions just like a regular pet; the owner/patient receives comfort and support by virtue of the companionship it provides. Emotional support animals require no specific training to do their job. All that’s required is an ESA letter (or emotional support letter, as it’s sometimes known). This is acquired from a registered medical professional, either in person or over one of several ESA sites on the internet.

The problem is that some people are taking advantage of the system, and are out to scam vulnerable patients looking to legitimately avail of an emotional support animal. There are many safe, secure, and qualified ESA sites out there through which to apply to for your emotional support letter. However, mixed in with the good ones there are also some devious ones. These sites are nothing but scams; they’ll take people’s money and provide a false ESA letter. This letter won’t stand up under scrutiny, and is essentially invalid. Even worse, it could leave the patient open for prosecution, despite them not knowing their letter is falsified.

Emotional support animals are big business in the U.S. at the moment.

With emotional support animals becoming so popular, spotting these fake ESA sites is crucially important for patients. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to tell if a website is authentic or not; following the checklist below can help make sure you avail of a legitimate service.

1. Claims of Instant Approval

Beware of ESA sites offering any sort of “instant approval.” This simply can’t happen with an ESA letter, as it requires certification from a medical professional. You will need to answer a number of questions online to certify that you are a legitimate candidate for an ESA letter, but if that’s all you did, chances are the site is spurious. You will almost certainly also need a consultation with a doctor, either in person or online. Some sites offer this as part of their overall ESA letter package. If you see that offered, the site is likely legitimate.

2. Claims of No Renewal

This is one of the easiest identifiers of false ESA letters, and one you should check for immediately. There is no such thing as a non-renewal ESA letter. In accordance with the law, every ESA letter is valid for one year and one year only. You must renew your letter every twelve months. Think of it like a passport; you need to keep it up to date, and be aware of the expiry. In addition, every emotional support letter should clearly display the issue date and the expiry date. If it doesn’t, it’s completely invalid. If you’re unsure about a particular site, ask to see a template. They should readily have this available, and the template should look exactly how your letter is going to look. If they don’t have a template to send you, or you don’t see an expiry date on it, don’t progress any further.

3. “Take Your Pet Anywhere” Claims

Emotional support animals are afforded certain privileges by law, as their owners are classified as having a mental disability. They are allowed into airplane cabins under the Air Carrier Access Act, and into rented accommodation under the Fair Housing Act. They are not automatically allowed into privately owned places such as shops and restaurants, or spaces such as galleries or museums. Any ESA sites that claim you can bring your pet anywhere should be immediately considered fraudulent. ESAs provide a very specific service to their owners. When it becomes open season for people to take advantage of this service, it makes the situation more difficult for everyone involved. Airlines are already clamping down on their policies because of the multitude of emotional support animal fliers they carry daily. Not all of these people are legitimate patients, and their bad practise is supported by fraudulent ESA sites.

It’s important to know the signs of fraudulent ESA sites so you don’t find yourself getting duped.

4. Unbelievably Cheap

As with anything you buy online, beware of unbelievable value for money. This is usually the sign that something is amiss. ESA letters are not overly expensive, but you are paying for the process, not just the piece of paper at the end of it. As previously stated, this will include consultation with a doctor, and a series of questions, as well as the letter itself. The takes some time and will cost money. It’s a very affordable service in the long run, especially when it comes to the benefits you get from it; but be wary of overly cheap ESA sites, as they probably aren’t providing a top-tier customer experience.

On top of these points, you can do your own digging into a site’s reputation. Trust Pilot is a great place to start, as a high customer rating on that is usually indicative of a legitimate business serving legitimate product. As a final check, make sure that the site’s payment page has a padlock in the address bar, and is identified as “secure” by your browser. This means that your payment details are safe from hackers; any ESA sites that doesn’t fully protect its customers’ privacy probably has more nefarious intentions, or is just plain unprofessional.