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Is trading coupons ever against the law? - Jill Cataldo

Q: "I've been using coupons all my life, and I've had one question for nearly that long. Many coupons bear the message, "Not transferable." I have always assumed this means that only the first, intended recipient of the coupon can use it. However, I hear about coupon clubs and exchanges that trade or share coupons. Isn't this unethical or illegal, if the coupon says it is not transferable?"

A: There's a lot of fine print on coupons. Instructions for usage, redemption and terms abound in the tiny text at the bottom of each one. And yes, on many coupons, you see the ominous warning, "Coupon may be void if copied, transferred, reproduced, sold or exchanged."

What does this mean? First of all, it's not illegal to share or trade coupons. There are no laws that govern coupon-trading. The "non-transferable" statement is one of the terms of redemption that the manufacturer issuing a coupon sets. Through these terms, the manufacturer reserves the right to deem the coupon void, if it has been transferred against its wishes.

But what does that mean? Does it mean I can't share cat food coupons with my sister, or trade coupons with other moms at my kids' play group? Will the coupon police knock on my door, if I mail some of my extra coffee coupons to my aunt? No. While the wording seems loaded with consequence, it's simply a statement by the manufacturer notifying consumers that it reserves the right to declare a coupon void, if it determines that the coupon is circulating via fraudulent means.

It would be very difficult for anyone to police the activities of millions of coupon shoppers. As you point out, coupon clubs and swaps abound across the country. And manufacturers themselves sponsor coupon networks to encourage the use of coupons. Procter & Gamble's Vocalpoint (www.vocalpoint.com) and General Mills' Pssst (pssst.generalmills.com) invite shoppers to register to receive product samples and coupons in exchange for providing personal information -- including name, age, gender, address, number of and ages of members of your household and your attitudes about buying new products and sharing opinions with friends and family, among other information. The companies invite "members" to share coupons with friends and post opinions of their products online.

One Vocalpoint mailing included five $10 coupons for a popular brand of skincare products. While the mailer's printed instructions encouraged me to share the coupons with friends, each coupon contained the wording: "Void if transferred to any person, firm or group prior to store redemption." Why would a manufacturer put this wording on coupons that it explicitly encouraged me to give away to other people?

Transferring a coupon, from a legal standpoint, refers to much more than simply handing one to a friend. The transfer manufacturers seek to prevent involves three areas: duplication, distribution and compensation. If I photocopy a coupon or I scan a coupon into my computer and then print my scan of the original coupon, I am transferring that coupon from one medium to another. This duplication is prohibited. And, if I took my (now illegally transferred) copies of the original coupon and started using them or sharing copies with friends, I would be distributing an illegally transferred coupon. And if I went one step further and decided to sell those (illegally transferred) copies of coupons, I would be receiving compensation for transferring them.

If you're not doing any of these things (and you shouldn't be!), you're not illegally transferring coupons. Feel free to swap, trade and share your coupons with others. Manufacturers do not prohibit this and, in fact, many of them are delighted if you do.

Next week, we'll discuss another question that often goes hand-in-hand with this one: Is it illegal to sell a coupon?

Jill Cataldo never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.supercouponing.com. E-mail your own couponing victories and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.