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Service Dog Fraud Plagues San Francisco

San Francisco Service Dog Fraud

We often take our health for granted, never considering how life would be different without basic blessings like sight or mobility. However, the disabled are afforded no such luxury; daily tasks pose serious challenges that can turn life into a struggle. To help alleviate this burden, organizations like Assistance Dogs International train dogs to care for and to empower the disabled.

To serve this end, ADIís training program transforms playful puppies into disciplined service dogs that meet rigorous criteria before pairing them with a person in need. Because many handicapped individuals rely on service dogs to perform basic tasks, The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that establishments permit service dogs to enter areas that are restricted to pets and other animals. Though this protects equal rights for the disabled, a sinister trend is causing problems with its enforcement in California.

Fraud Poses Problems

An undercover investigation by NBC Bay Area revealed a rising problem for San Francisco restaurants: fraudulent service dogs. A rising number of reports reveal that dog owners are attempting to pass off their pet dogs as service dogs to enter areas where pets are normally forbidden. This practice appears innocent enough, as no pet owner wants to be separated from their furry friends. However, this lie has serious consequences for business owners, other patrons, and people are actually disabled.

To understand the problem, itís important to understand the restrictions and laws involved. Restaurants and other places where food is handled risk a damaged reputation or even health code violations if they do not enforce restrictions that ensure that pets do not contaminate their food. The owners are then put between a rock and a hard place by certain provisions in the ADA.

Due to privacy concerns, there is no system of identifying a service dog as legitimate. Such a system would require that disabled persons register their personal information in order to receive basic rights. This inequity is prohibited by the ADA because requiring such a registry is a breach of privacy. This same restriction prevents business owners to even inquire to the legitimacy of a service dog or of a personís claim to be disabled.

Improving Enforcement Methods

The ADA offers some reprieve from the posers and frauds that attempt to abuse its protections. Those found to be misrepresenting their dog as a service dog are actually committing a misdemeanor that leaves them vulnerable to hefty fines. Although the aforementioned privacy provisions make it difficult to catch culprits, the ordinance is enough to discourage instances of fraud.

When San Francisco first attempted to tackle the problem, a campaign to heighten awareness of the offence was surprisingly successful. Inspectors distributed signs to businesses in 2011 that informed patrons that misrepresenting a pet as a service animal is indeed a misdemeanor. After two years of posting signs, annual complaints of illegitimate service dogs fell by 61%.

A Victimless Crime?

Although this is a great improvement, the problem is still prevalent enough to warrant concern. If not a hazard to restaurants and their patrons, these cases are not only detrimental- but abhorrently insidious- to those that actually suffer from disabilities. Even in 2014, those who are truly disabled feel a harsh impact from the liars. Not only are they faced with increased scrutiny that often violates their rights- but some even face a cultural backlash.

Ariana Aboulafia, a disabled blogger who uses a service dog, wrote recently about her struggles in California regarding this indecency. In addition to writing on the perverse nature of this particular type of fraud, she grasps the difficulty in remedying the situation. "I don't think the answer to this issue lies in changing the law, but rather in educating people on things that service dogs really do to help people that would otherwise suffer. People like me. Perhaps if more people understood the importance of service dogs to disabled people, they would at least think twice before buying a service dog vest on eBay and using it to get Fido into the grocery store."

The efficacy of education has yet to be explored, although it definitely seems like a step in the right direction. What do you think of the people that misrepresent their dogs as service dogs? What might police officers and business owners do to stop it? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!