With the popularity of programs like Extreme Couponing, and more and more people understanding that they can save a lot of money by using coupons, it is unsurprising that some fraud and scams have also started to emerge. Throughout the history of mankind, we have seen that wherever large groups of people congregate, be that physically or through a shared activity, scams also begin to crop up. While couponing is indeed a great way to make sure you can get some really good deals, it is vital that you learn how to avoid coupon fraud at the same time. The guide below has been designed to help you understand what is and isn’t legal, thereby making sure that you can play a part in ensuring that couponing remains a fun activity that will help consumers keep costs down.

You have to understand that coupon fraud actually costs businesses millions of dollars a year. This money that they lose is charged to the customer by increasing prices on products. You won’t be thrown in jail for trading coupons in your circle of friends. However, it is not unheard of for people to be handed three to five year prison sentences for coupon fraud on a large scale. If you counterfeit or alter a coupon, or if you break the terms and conditions associated with it, you are committing fraud, and fraud is a serious crime.

Keep It Legal!

There are a number of things you can do to make sure you don’t end up in trouble by using coupons:

• Do not copy, scan or print more than the number of coupons you are allowed to from a website. This should be clearly indicated and you must stick to these rules for ethical reasons.
• Do not decode the bar codes on coupons. This is something that some shoppers have done, essentially using a coupon for one product on a completely different product altogether. Yes, you may be able to scan a coupon but that doesn’t mean that scanning it is actually legal.
• Do not use a coupon that has expired. Of course, you can always ask the store whether they are still willing to honor it, which is completely within the rules. But if they say no, then your coupon will be completely worthless.
• Do not buy coupons. Generally speaking, there will be a clause somewhere on the coupon or through the issuer of the coupon that states that a coupon that was transferred for any type of payment becomes null and void. This also means that you cannot buy your coupons off websites, such as Craigslist or eBay. If you do purchase them, there is also a chance that you may have bought counterfeit or even stolen coupons.
• Do not get Sunday papers out of other people’s dumpsters. This is a practice known as ‘dumpster diving’. Not only is it dangerous, but you could actually be breaking the law as it can be considered trespassing. If you want to have Sunday papers other than your own, simply ask your friends and neighbors whether you can have theirs. Alternatively, you can buy more newspapers.
• Always read the fine print. The terms and conditions included must be read properly and followed to the letter. There are various restrictions included on almost every coupon and you must understand them.

Coupon Restrictions

Almost all coupons have the same restrictions. These include:

• That you cannot transfer a coupon. This means you can’t sell it, buy it or trade it with someone else.
• Most coupons are limited to one per household. This means that you can’t go shopping together with your husband and use the same coupon on the same product twice.
• A limit of four coupons per transaction is usually provided for each household for a period of 24 hours. Cashiers are trained to be aware of this clause and if they spot you having used more than four, they may refuse to honor the coupon, meaning you either have to pay the full amount or come back the next day to try again.
• Do Not Double (DND) rule. However, there are a number of stores that make exceptions to this. Like with the expired coupons, however, this means you have to ask them whether or not they want to honor it.

Red Flags

There are a number of clear red flags to be aware of. While you may unwittingly fall for some sort of coupon fraud, not knowing it is not a legal defense. This is why it is important that you are aware of the red flags that may mean you have gotten your hands on an illegal coupon:

• An extended expiration date. Usually, the better the deal is, the less time you will have to cash in on it. If you see a lead time that is longer than six months, particularly on high value or on free items, it is likely that the coupon is counterfeit.
• Coupons in PDF files. This is a significant issue because many manufacturers do actually print their coupons in PDF format, believing PDFs to be uncrackable. In reality, it is very easy to modify a PDF file. This is why, if you do find a PDF coupon, you have to make sure the source is completely legitimate.
• Coupons with names or email addresses. Sometimes, a store will include a name or email in order to make it more difficult for copycats to create fake coupons. If you are given a personalized coupon, you will probably have to bring some ID with you in order to actually claim the coupon itself.
• Coupons that look doctored. Sometimes, it simply is really obvious that a coupon is fake. The tone may be a bit hazy, the logo may be completely fake or outdated, there may not be an expiration date on the coupon, the font may be wrong on the slogan or logo, and so on. While it may be tempting to still use the coupon, you would actually be breaking the law.
• Too good to be true coupons. If you see a coupon offering you $15 off an item that costs $15 in the first place, there is probably something wrong. There are exceptions, however. For instance, you may be getting $15 off a $30 product and the store that carries this product just so happens to be having a 50% off sale. In that case, the coupon may be completely legit.

Be Ethical

Couponing should be done ethically. This is almost an unwritten rule among people who use coupons for their shopping. While there are no laws that dictate you must behave in the following way, it is simply presumed that you should so that the world of couponing doesn’t get ruined for everybody else. As such:

• Never buy more than what you actually need.
• Do not take the peel off anything that you don’t intend to use or buy.
• Do not grab lots of coupon booklets if they are offered.
• Do not take coupon tags off products, such as wine bottles, unless you intend to purchase them.
• Do not take all the coupons out of a tear pad, nor should you take all the blinkies found in a machine.

Avoid Clipping Services

The best way to avoid accidental coupon fraud is to not use clipping services. This is particularly true if the entity is completely unknown. Also make sure you get rid of emails that include coupons or discounts giving you free products. Instead, remain up to date with the Coupon Information Center/Corporation in order to make sure you know which coupons are valid or not.

Coupon Alerts

The Coupon Information Center/Corporation also issues coupon alerts. While they do their very best to list any counterfeit coupons they are aware of on their website, they cannot guarantee all counterfeit coupons are actually included on it. This is because:

• Identifying fake coupons takes a long time. It is important that the status of coupons is actually confirmed, and this doesn’t happen overnight.
• There are manufacturers who do not want any counterfeit coupons in their name listed on any public websites.
• Sometimes, law enforcement officials ask for counterfeit coupons not to be publicized, as it may jeopardize their investigations.

As a consumer, you can protect yourself by following the information listed above. Remember that committing coupon fraud, even unwittingly so, is a crime and that other consumers have to pay the price for it.

Suggested Resources:

Coupon Information Corporation
Extreme Couponing Tip: What You Should Know About Coupon Fraud
Ethics of Couponing: What to Know About Coupon Fraud
Coupon Fraud On The Internet Targeted For Warning Messages