HomeQuestionsAnswered is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a commission. HomeQuestionsAnswered is an affiliate of Pettable. Learn more.

Vacation Planning Disaster: How a Fake ESA Letter Almost Ruined My Trip

Trisha Chen

Is there anything worse than having something go wrong during a much-anticipated vacation? Sometimes vacation disasters happen from things out of your control, but other times they're caused by mistakes in the planning process.

That was the story of my last vacation. I planned for months and figured I had thought of everything, including how I could bring my emotional support dog, Walt, with me. He’s an essential part of my daily life because he helps me manage my post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

I realized a few years ago that the anxiety and panic attacks I was having weren’t normal. After a lot of doctor’s appointments, I was diagnosed with PTSD. My doctor worked with me to develop a treatment plan, and life got better. Then I got my Golden Retriever, Walt, and realized how much easier it was to manage my daily symptoms and triggers when he was with me.

Fortunately, my apartment complex doesn’t have any restrictions on dogs, so I didn’t have to sign any extra forms or pay additional fees to have Walt in my home. But when I started thinking about a vacation, I became worried about traveling without him. Traveling can be hard for people with PTSD – airports, flying, and unfamiliar places are all potential triggers. I knew I would need to keep Walt with me if I wanted my trip to be relaxing.

After some research, I realized that I could keep Walt with me on the plane if I had documentation that he was an assistance animal. Even though the Air Carrier Access Act doesn’t require airlines to allow ESAs anymore, I found a carrier with an ESA program and bought my ticket.

I went to get an ESA letter online and found a website that offered quick service and low prices. I emailed a copy of my letter to the airline’s customer service department to make sure everything was set for my trip.

The response I got almost ruined my vacation – my ESA letter was apparently fake. It didn’t meet the federal requirements or the airline’s guidelines for emotional support animal documentation. I felt horrible trying to figure out how to salvage my plans. My trip was less than a week away, and I’d already paid for everything.

Fortunately, I was able to find a legitimate online service that provided a genuine ESA letter. The Pettable ESA Letter Service made it really easy to complete a phone evaluation with a mental health professional. Once she verified my symptoms and my diagnosis, she sent over an official letter that was far more detailed and professional than the cheap one I had. I emailed the document to the airline and crossed my fingers. I got a quick response that I was eligible for the airline’s ESA program and would be allowed to take Walt on the plane with me.

I am so lucky that I was about to find a way to get a legit ESA letter quickly. But my original mistakes made my vacation planning extremely stressful. I hope my story can help others avoid falling for a fake ESA scam.

What is an emotional support animal?

emotional support animal

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a dog, cat, or another animal whose presence helps mitigate mental illness symptoms. An ESA isn’t the same as a service animal – they aren’t trained to perform specific tasks like guide dogs are. However, emotional support animals can be essential to daily life for a person with a mental or emotional disability.

To be officially considered an assistance animal with legal housing and travel protections, an emotional support animal must be “prescribed” by a medical professional. In most cases, this means that a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) who diagnoses a patient with a mental illness will write an official letter recommending an ESA as part of the treatment plan.

A medical provider’s letter provides proof that the owner needs their ESA to cope with their disability. With a letter, emotional support animals are exempt from pet restrictions in certain situations.

Top 5 signs of an online ESA letter scam

Unfortunately, not all online ESA letter providers are legitimate. There are many emotional support animal scams on the internet. A fake ESA letter doesn’t give any legal rights to your dog or cat. Before you pay for an ESA letter to take on your next trip, make sure to check for these common signs of a fraudulent service:

1. Instantly available letters

Any website that offers instant eligibility for ESA letters is a scam. To meet state and federal requirements, an ESA must be written and signed by a licensed mental health professional after an evaluation. Don’t trust a website that allows you to “qualify” for a letter simply based on an online quiz or self-assessment.

2. Lack of identifying details

For a valid ESA letter, you can’t just add your details to a generic fill-in-the-blank form. A real ESA letter is completely customized and has plenty of specific details, including your LMHP’s full name, license number, contact information, and signature.

The letter also needs to include your full name, a diagnosis of your mental or emotional disability, and a recommendation for an ESA. Some experts recommend including details about your ESA, such as species and breed.

3. No customer support

A fraudulent ESA site is there to make money, not help people. If you can’t find contact details for a customer support team or any information about what to do if you need help with your letter, it’s a sign that the provider is sketchy. A trustworthy ESA service will have readily available customer service representatives who can help you with legal advice if a travel provider or landlord tries to deny your letter.

4. Extremely low price

Legitimate ESA letters usually cost between $100 and $200, which makes sense given the time and effort needed to facilitate evaluations with licensed mental health professionals. Be wary of sites that offer cheap emotional support animal letters. With ESA documentation, as with most things, you get what you pay for.

5. Registration or certification options

There are countless emotional support animal sites on the internet that promise to register your ESA dog or cat in an “official” database of assistance animals. Some of these sites also provide ESA letters, while others insist that the only thing you need is a certificate showing that your animal is “registered.”

In fact, there is no such thing as a database or registry of ESAs. A registration certificate has no legal power. The only document that proves your cat or dog is an assistance animal is a legitimate ESA letter. Don’t trust a provider that’s making money on unnecessary certification services.

How to know your online ESA letter is valid

If you notice any of the red flags listed above, you should be aware that the online ESA service you are looking at is probably a scam. But how can you be sure your ESA letter is legitimate? These are the marks of a genuine ESA letter that meets state and federal requirements.

  • Personal data: A legit ESA letter needs to include your full name and a diagnosis of your mental or emotional disability.
  • Provider information: To be valid, an ESA letter needs to be written by a licensed medical professional authorized to practice in your state. The document must be written on your provider’s official letterhead and include their license number and contact details. It must be signed and dated.
  • Medical recommendation: The letter must indicate that the LMHP recommends an emotional support animal for your mental health condition. The document may also include details about the emotional support animal, such as species, breed, and/or name.
  • Correct time frame: An ESA letter is only valid for travel purposes for one year. If your trip occurs more than 365 days after the date your letter was signed, you’ll need to get an updated document.
  • Ongoing customer support: If the company you get your ESA letter from is willing to back it up against challenges from travel organizations and airlines, it’s a pretty good indication that the document is legit. A trustworthy online ESA service should allow you to contact their support team if you have any problems using your letter.
  • Satisfaction guarantee: A provider of legitimate ESA letters should be willing to issue refunds for letters that are rejected in practice. Fake ESA letter scams don’t have money-back guarantees. A solid refund policy indicates that the provider isn’t going to write an ESA letter for anyone who doesn’t meet all the eligibility requirements.

When choosing an ESA letter provider, it’s essential to make sure you get a valid document from a company you can trust. If you have to get an evaluation from an LMHP and your document includes all the relevant information and signatures, you can feel confident that it is legitimate.

Get a valid ESA letter from Pettable

Pettable online esa letter
Image credit: Pettable

When you’re looking forward to a bit of R & R with your emotional support dog or cat, the last thing you want to worry about is being turned away at the airport. Unfortunately, that can happen if your ESA documentation is fake.

Before you travel, make sure you get a legitimate ESA letter from a trustworthy provider. A Pettable ESA letter meets all federal and state requirements and is also compliant with HIPAA and ACAA regulations. If an air carrier or travel provider questions your letter, you can have them contact Pettable directly. With a genuine emotional support animal letter, you have everything you need for a relaxing getaway.

About the author
Trisha Chen
Trisha Chen
She is a writer for HomeQuestionsAnswered, specializing in health and education topics, and has a love for animals, the outdoors, and traveling. She currently resides in San Diego and has a background in communications and a minor in Spanish.