Stop Thief! Drop that coupon!

Coupon fraud.

The very words strike terror in the hearts of the extreme couponer.

As you all know by now, I have been an avid couponer for over 30 years. 

In those 30+ years, I have reaped the benefits of my hobby; filling my cupboards and those of loved ones with a bounty of products that I obtained either free or nearly free through the astute use of coupons. I have held garage sales with tables of health and beauty products that were snatched up greedily by repeat customers who stop me in the aisle of the grocery store to ask me when I’m having another sale.  I have stockpiled enough cereal, peanut butter and coffee that I won’t have to buy more for a year.  I have donated to charities and sent care boxes to friends or family.

And in all those years, not once have I purposely mis-used a coupon.

But I have experienced the backlash from those who have.

I have had cashiers peruse my coupons suspiciously and call a manager to the front to look them over.  I’ve had a cashier ask me if my coupons were fake.  I ‘ve seen the narrowed eyes and heard the underlying tone of distrust when a cashier or store manager asks me where I get all my coupons. Once, I was accused of “coupon fraud” when I attempted to use several Schick free razor coupons in one transaction.  The razor coupons were obviously from a Sunday insert, but the offer seemed too good to be true: a free $7.99 razor?  Surely, I’d made them myself. No company gives away an $8 razor, and even if they did, no customer should be able to get more than one free razor!

Despite these incidents, I love using coupons, and I want to make sure that coupons continue to be offered, even though some marketers are convinced that coupons are an outdated mode of promotion.  In our greedy world, however, anything that involves millions of dollars inevitably involves criminal activity and fraud. 

I had no idea just how much fraudulent activity until I began researching and writing my book. I imagined that most of the coupon fraud involved big money and big business, but when I came across a website that encouraged consumers to misredeem coupons, I was gravely disappointed.

Let’s back up a bit. What exactly is the difference between coupon fraud and coupon misredemption?

From my book in progress:

Coupon fraud, a multi-million dollar criminal activity, is an intentional illegal practice that includes counterfeiting, wholesale trading or brokering, and submissions of coupons from a non-existent retail operation. Misredemption, on the other hand, may be of a more minor nature, but it is still illegal. Misredemption represents a primarily unintentional violation of coupon policies, such as retailers accepting expired coupons and allowing alternate product purchases for customers. Or, I would hasten to add, a customer purposely redeeming a coupon with the intention of obtaining a product of a different size than specified on the coupon or even a different product. That would be an intentional misredemption, and one that the majority of my coupon cohorts would frown upon, but that is actually encouraged on some message boards.

It didn’t take too long to discover old postings in the archives of the forum of this particular website where members worried over the upcoming changes in the bar codes of coupons, changes that would make “creative couponing” all the more difficult. Their definition of “creativity?”  Apparently they were able to decode the coupons to figure out which coupons would scan for products other than those stated. Once they discovered a Crest whitening strip coupon would scan on any of that manufacturer’s products they started using the $10 coupon on diapers and wipes, netting free products.  Members advised using self checkouts so that cashiers wouldn’t question the practice. “Beating the system,” they called it, or “creative couponing.”

What’s wrong with that?

It is so obvious I am not sure I should have to point it out. 

Coupons aren’t free money. The money to cover the coupon has to come from somewhere. Use a $10 coupon at Walmart for a $2.99 package of diaper wipes, and Walmart gets their $10 back, right? Doesn’t hurt anyone and you can walk out of the store being paid for a package of diaper wipes.  But someone pays for that coupon, and it is the company that designed the coupon.  They have to reimburse Walmart $10 for a product that wasn’t sold.  Do that 10 times and the company just lost $70.  Coupon misredemption costs the manufacturer, and when the manufacturer is losing money, they raise the prices, hurting consumers everywhere.

Take a look at some of your newer coupons.  There are two bar codes on most coupons now, and eventually there will be only one and that bar code will be instrumental in preventing this kind of misredemption.  I’d thought most of the new coupons had already changed over to the new coding.

Apparently not.

A couple of days ago, on my favorite coupon site,  a member on the discussion board asked about a recent coupon that specified a $5 savings on one product when the consumer bought the other product. 

“Can I buy a trial-size product and get $5 off the other product?” she asked, and the answer was yes.  For the price of the trial-size (99-cents) the coupon allowed a $5 savings on the other, netting a free product with the purchase of a trial-size.  Great coupon, and not a case of misredemption since the coupon didn’t specify certain sizes.  It DID specify certain products, however, written in plain English.

“It scans on anything,” another member wrote.

“What do you mean, on anything?”

“I mean you can use it on anything. It scans on any product, even products they don’t make.”

My heart sank.  Here, on my favorite website, was someone who evidently had intentionally misused this coupon and she was promoting the practice.

A practice that will hurt honest couponers in the end.  Try to scan a $5 health and beauty product coupon on a coffeemaker one too many times and someone is bound to notice.  Like the cashier, or the person sorting coupons at the end of the day.  Or the company that figures out the number of coupons redeemed didn’t correspond with the amount of products sold.  And what does that cashier think about the next couponer that comes along? Another of those couponers, trying to rip us off.  What does the store manager do when he sees too many of the coupons in the till, and knows he didn’t sell those products? He posts a sign stating his store will no longer take Internet coupons, or puts a limit on the amount of coupons that can be used. He informs his cashiers to be super-vigilant regarding coupon users.  And the manufacturers? Disgruntled with the last costly experience, they discontinue coupon promotions.

And the fun stops.

I called her on it, that woman on the coupon website, but my comment was lost in the myriad of good deals posted.

“Please don’t do that,” I wrote. “Don’t use the coupon for products it wasn’t meant for.  That’s misredemption.”

What I should have added, “Read the coupon. It isn’t that difficult to see what it is meant for.  Buy the correct products. Keep it legal.  And keep it fun.”

3 thoughts on “Stop Thief! Drop that coupon!

  1. Lisa says:

    I read the same thing and thought the same as you. If it isn’t good enough getting a $5 body wash for free for buying a $1 deodorant in the trial section, I don’t know what is. I myself use Secret deodorant so this was a real plus for me. But I know where your coming from. I am really surprised Michelle allowed that to be posted, my heart sank also. And then some people wonder why us couponers are looked at like we are. I am so sad when I read this, I feel there are so many great deals out there, why do people do this? I will never understand.. Thanks for this great read…

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