Coupon fraud also costs companies hundreds of millions of dollars a year—that comes out of your pocket in the form of pricier products. Trading coupons with your friends probably won't lead to incarceration, but prison sentences of three to five years are not uncommon for large-scale coupon fraud. Altering or counterfeiting a coupon, or not meeting its terms and conditions, constitutes fraud, which is a crime.
Keep it legal! Steer clear of trouble in your couponing with these rules:
DON'T scan, copy or print more than the allotted number of printable coupons a website allows.
DON'T decode bar codes (a practice by which shoppers use a coupon to buy an entirely different product). Just because you can scan a coupon doesn't mean it's legal to do so.
DON'T use expired coupons (unless the store has stated that it is willing to accept them).
DON'T buy coupons. Most coupons printed in the United States include a clause that makes them void if transferred—plus, you might be unintentionally purchasing stolen property or counterfeit coupons, especially if you use an unknown clipping service on a website such as eBay.
DON'T dumpster-dive for the Sunday newspaper. It can be dangerous, and you could be trespassing. Instead, ask friends for extra coupons, or buy more papers at a dollar store.
DO read the fine print. Make sure you follow the terms and conditions printed on a coupon. Understand these common restrictions:
- Coupons may not be transferred. You cannot trade, buy or sell this coupon.
- Limit one per household. You may not go to the store with your husband and use identical coupons in separate transactions.
- Limit four per transaction by a household in a 24-hour period. If the cashier notices this clause, you might have to return to the store on another day to cash in on more than four deals.
- DND (do not double). Some store managers choose to make an exception; it's up to them.
DO look for red flags. Unsure about a coupon's legality? Check these common signs of fraudulent coupons:
- The expiration date is extended. You usually have less time to cash in on better deals. Be wary of lead times longer than six months on free items.
- The coupon is a PDF file. Manufacturers offer links to PDF coupons you can print several times. They're legit but can easily be changed. Make sure they come from a reliable source.
- There's a name or e-mail address on the coupon. Stores often add this layer of security to deter copycats. If a friend forwards you a personalized coupon, you might need ID to claim the discount.
- The coupon lookd doctored. Look out for a general hazy tone, a fake or outdated logo, no expiration date, or the wrong font for a recognizable brand or slogan.
- A deal is too good to be true. $15 off a $15 item? It's probably a fake.
DO coupon ethically. Although these couponing practices aren't considered fraud, think twice before you:
- Buy more than you need.
- Pull peelies off items you don't buy or don't use right away.
- Grab several coupon booklets.
- Take coupon tags off wine bottles you don't purchase.
- Remove all the coupons from a tear pad or all the blinkies from a machine.
- A great way to ensure your coupon is valid? Avoid using clipping services (especially an unknown entity), and disregard e-mail messages with coupons for free products attached. Find an up-to-date list of counterfeit coupons circulating the Web at couponinformationcenter.com.