This trend probably won’t do much for your faith in humanity: Around the country, an increasing number of ethically challenged human beings are faking disabilities in order to snag good parking spots, cut lines at theme parks, or just bring their dogs into restaurants.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s a federal crime to use a fake service animal to take advantage of privileges reserved for those who genuinely need the assistance of such pets. Nonetheless, according to a recent report from the Associated Press, the use of phony “dog tags” is on the rise, with owners faking papers or buying badges off the Internet just so that they can bring their pooches into restaurants, shops, and other venues that don’t usually allow dogs. Advocates of both pets and the disabled are divided as to how to police those who abuse service animal privileges, and some are calling for federal authorities to better regulate and enforce service animal rules around the country.
While it’s assumed that only a small percentage of the population would even think of using a faux service dog to avoid leaving a pet outside a store or at home in order to grab a bite at a restaurant, even a single incident of phony service dog usage is enough to get people—disabled and able-bodied alike—up in arms. Outrage followed the story of a 33-year-old New Yorker named Brett David, who was featured in the New York Post over the summer. David bragged about bringing his fake “therapy dog” named Napoleon into movie theaters, restaurants, nightclubs, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and more mainly because “I was sick of tying up my dog outside,” as he put it. “Sometimes, they’ll give me a hassle and say bring the papers next time, but for five bucks, you order [a patch] off eBay, and it works 90 percent of the time,” he explained.
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People like David aren’t the only ones pretending to be disabled to take advantage of special perks. In late September, the Walt Disney Company felt compelled to change its disabled guest policy at theme parks partly due to “abuse of the system.” The announcement came after reports surfaced that wealthy guests were paying wheelchair-riding tour guides top dollar so that the group could use the line-skipping privileges granted to the disabled at Disney theme parks.
Meanwhile, over the years, police around the U.S. periodically engage in sweeps to round up drivers fraudulently using handicapped parking passes, and apparently it’s pretty easy to snag people abusing the system. Last spring, over the course of a mere four hours, authorities in Oakland, Calif., confiscated 13 handicapped placards being used illegally by drivers. That’s out of a total of 70 placards they came across, meaning nearly one in five was fraudulent.
A report in Seattle published over the summer estimated that one in eight drivers using disabled parking placards is doing so fraudulently, costing the city $1.4 million annually. Like in Seattle, drivers with such placards get to park for free in Providence, R.I., where it just so happens that there has been an influx of cars with disabled parking passes near train stations and bus stops. Police began routinely demanding verification and handed out multiple $500 fines to those who were using passes registered to someone else. “Not only is it an affront to the persons who have a disability and need the space, they’re cheating the city out of revenue by parking there,” one Providence police officer said of the offenders.
In yet another sting, in Orlando, Fla., police zeroed in on offenders like a 34-year-old woman using a placard registered to someone who was 85, and who had died a few months prior to the bust. Apparently, the driver, arrested just before 3 a.m., was using the placard in order to park in a convenient handicap spot downtown—so that her car was nearby when the bars closed.
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Suspicions of disabled placard abuse have gotten so bad in New Jersey—where more than 500,000 people have special placard and license plate privileges—that the state introduced tougher regulations last spring. In the past, anyone who classified for a pass could renew automatically every three years. As of August 1, though, drivers must submit proof of their condition every three years before they’re granted special privileges. Disabled parking placards were also redesigned so that it is easier for police and meter checkers to see expiration dates, and so that it’s more difficult for drivers to unlawfully change the information on the passes.