How to Commit Coupon Fraud & Why You Don’t Want to Do It


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A friend of mine recently told me about a friend of hers who used multiple $10.00/1 Crest White Strips coupons to get jumbo packs of diapers (probably Pampers, since they are both manufactured by P&G) for free.  Apparently, when the first several numbers of different products’ UPC codes are the same, cash registers may not catch that a coupon is being used for the wrong item.  Even if the register does catch the error (you’ll know because it will make an angry beeping sound), an oblivious cashier may manually okay it.  Sounds pretty cool……  But it’s also illegal.

Were you aware that abusing coupons can be punishable by law?  It’s called coupon fraud, and it can result in hefty fines, possibly even jail time. The harshest punishment for coupon fraud on record to date included a $5 million fine and 17 years in prison.  True story.

So it is clearly very important that you adhere to the letter of the law when it comes to collecting your savings.  Here are a few Dos & Don’ts to keep you from crossing the line:

  • DON’T photocopy your printables.  Or any other coupons, for that matter.
  • DON’T modify any coupon’s dollar amount, expiration date, bar code, or any other element.
  • DON’T use more than one manufacturer coupon on any one item.
  • DON’T use more coupons than are permitted per transaction or shopping trip.
  • DON’T use a coupon for any other product than that for which it is intended.
  • DON’T buy or sell coupons.  This is not permitted by any manufacturer.
  • DO adhere to the expiration date.
  • DO adhere to quantity and size restrictions.
  • DO be honest.  If you realize that you improperly used a coupon, tell your cashier.  If you don’t catch your mistake until after you’ve left the store, take your receipt and your purchase back to customer service.  If they tell you not to worry about it, kindly remind them why they should fix the problem.  Manufacturers do not reimburse stores for coupons that were processed incorrectly, so they should be happy to oblige.

You will probably make some inadvertent and unintentional mistakes when you’re new to extreme couponing (I know I did!).  But do not fear being arrested or fined over small mistakes.  It won’t happen.  (I can’t even imagine what the person who got the $5 million fine and 17 years was doing!)  Just be honest once you realize your misuse, and try to rectify the problem.

In order to avoid committing coupon fraud, be proactive, and read the fine print.  Understand what your coupons say before you try to use them.  Adhering to expiration dates and restrictions on quantity and size are pretty easy to do.  But other words in the fine print can be a bit more confusing.

So here are a few more vocabulary terms for you to know:

  • Purchase:  Every item you buy is a separate purchase.  So if your coupon says “Limit 1 per purchase” (it will), that means one coupon per item, not per transaction.  Ensures that no more than one manufacturer coupon is applied to any one item.
  • Transaction:  Each time you pay, you’ve made a transaction.  You can make multiple purchases (buy multiple items) within one transaction.  Some coupons may have a transaction limit, such as “Limit 4 like coupons per transaction.”
  • Shopping Trip:  Each time you visit a store, you are making a shopping trip.  You may make one, five, ten, or more transactions within one shopping trip.  Some coupons limit the number of like items you may purchase per shopping trip.  If this is the case, and you intended to use more coupons than that limit, you may either purchase the remainder at the same store on another day, or at a different store on the same day.  This prevents shelf-clearing, and ensures that everyone will have the opportunity to cash in on each store’s sales.
  • Like Items:  Colgate toothpaste and Crest toothpaste are not “like items,” even though they both serve the same purpose.  Like items generally means identical items being purchased with identical coupons.  If you have four $1.00/1 Colgate Max White coupons that limit four per transaction or shopping trip, and four $1.00/1 Degree deodorant coupons with the same limit, you may use all eight coupons.

Another fuzzy area:  Printables.  Generally, Internet coupons have a print limit of two per computer.  That does not mean that you may only use two coupons.  It is acceptable for you two print two coupons from each of multiple computers.  As long as each of your printables has a unique barcode printed clearly on the front (and you abide by their fine print), you’re okay.  Again, this means absolutely no photocopying!!

Occasionally, you will find a printable coupon in Portable Document Format, or pdf, which will not generate a new barcode for each print.  The manufacturer may allow unlimited prints on these, but don’t go crazy just yet.  It’s not illegal to print multiples, but some cash registers won’t read them.  No need to waste money on paper and ink for hundreds of coupons you can’t use.  Try one or two first.

The last sticky situation we’re going to discuss today is the buying and selling of coupons, another illegal practice.  Coupon clipping services, however, seem to have found a loophole.  Instead of selling you coupons, they charge you for the service of clipping them (or for gathering complete inserts) for you.  It’s all in the semantics I suppose (?).  If you do decide to use a clipping service, never pay them to clip printable coupons for you.  You cannot verify barcodes to be unique in order to be sure that they are not photocopies.

(I did come across one Web site that simply said that coupon clipping services are also illegal, but that was it.  No links, notations, explanations, nothing.  But I came across at least a dozen others who beg to differ.  I’ve used them three times myself without hassle.  And I imagine that since they advertise publicly, they have no fear of being prosecuted.  So until I hear otherwise, I feel comfortable telling you that they are a legal means by which to get extra coupons.)

This post has been another long one, but I can assure you that you need to be aware of this information.  Coupon fraud affects everyone.  In essence, it is stealing, whether it happens intentionally or not.  Someone has to pay for it, and it is always the consumers (us!!).  Manufacturers then raise their prices, causing stores to raise theirs.  And when it comes to coupons, fraud discourages manufacturers from distributing them and stores from accepting them.

Now, hopefully, you have a better understanding of how to abide by the rules of couponing.  The ones we discussed today are those set by manufacturers.  In addition to those guidelines, stores have their own policies regarding their acceptance of coupons.  In the next post, I’ll provide you with some information on adhering to store coupon policies, and provide you with some helpful links.  For now, you know the drill.  Any questions – please leave them in the comments.  Thanks!

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