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Coupon crime, unintended and otherwise - Jill Cataldo

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Q: "I read your article about coupon fraud. I never knew you were prohibited from making photocopies of a coupon printed out from the Internet. I'd never done this before a week or so ago. Should I go back to the store and offer to pay for these coupons or should I try to get in touch with the company that makes these two items and explain what happened? I, in no way, want to be dishonest. And I will never do this again. I did not know this was illegal."

A: It's true, and it's worth repeating: never, never make photocopies of coupons you print out from the Internet. This is coupon fraud. Each printable contains identifiers (typically a serial number) that make that individual coupon unique. When you photocopy a printable coupon, you're making an identical copy - and when your store redeems two or more coupons with that same serial number on them, guess what happens? The store is only reimbursed for one of the coupons. It's essentially a small form of stealing from the store.

Photocopying printable coupons is also not without consequences. When multiples of the same printable coupon are submitted for redemption, and several show up with the same serial number, that information can be sent back to the site that originally hosted the coupon. It's very easy for the site to track down both the IP and hardware addresses of the computer that originally printed it. With that information, the site typically permanently revokes the coupon-printing privileges for that computer. If flagrant abuse has occurred, legal prosecution can follow.

For this reason, it's also not a good idea to trade printable coupons with people you do not know well. If they decide to make photocopies of coupons you give them, guess who stands to pay the price? You.

If this was the first time you made a copy, it's not likely that you will be prosecuted. I applaud you for wanting to make it right. I'm not aware of any way to make this right with the manufacturer, but you could try explaining to your store what happened, and ask if they'd like you to pay for those coupons. It's likely that they may let it go and appreciate your honesty and commitment not to do it again.

Q: "I have read that several stores do not accept Internet coupons that contain the word 'Free,' even if the coupon states 'Buy One, Get One Free.' Is this true?"

A: Yes. Printable coupons for free products are among the most frequently counterfeited types of coupons. Sadly, anyone armed with a scanner, graphics software and a decent amount of skill can create a valid-looking, fake coupon. And if someone goes to the trouble of creating a counterfeit coupon, what dollar amount are they going to put on it? Certainly not 50 cents or even $1. They're going to go all the way, creating a coupon for a free product.

Some stores place limits on the dollar value of printable coupons that they will accept -- typically $5. It's highly unlikely that a manufacturer would issue, say, a $10 coupon for baby diapers. In choosing not to accept high (and unlikely) dollar amounts on printable coupons, a store is protecting itself from fraud.

One of my local stores will not accept printable coupons for free products or printable coupons with dollar values greater than $5, but they will accept BOGO printables. Check your store's policy to determine if your area supermarket has specific restrictions on printable coupons. Sadly, many have had to put them in place.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, 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.