November 3, 2011
In this economic tailspin, the coupon craze emerges. Extreme savings are a sport for the times and retailers can barely keep up. But saving a buck has a dark side. Counterfeit couponing is a hot trend with a bad return, and many of you have played a part in this thievery, unknowingly.
A WHNT News 19 viewer tipped us off and sent in an email with an attachment of fraudulent coupons. The email has gone viral nationwide and the criminals designing these online coupons are masters at what they do. In fact, The Coupon Information Corporation, a coupon watchdog group says they’ve recently gotten wind of the fakes, and are now pulling out all the stops to get the community educated and retailers abreast of the situation.
The CIC tells WHNT News 19 they’ve uncovered fraud schemes involving more than $750 million. They say one counterfeit coupon can cause major damage.
"If a counterfeit breaks out into the main stream, where people are emailing it back and forth, that can be a very big challenge to meet and that can easily cost a million dollars to the industry," said Bud Miller, the CIC's Executive Director.
That’s why WHNT News 19 decided to go undercover, to find out if our bogus coupons will slide through the cashiers' hands at local retailers. We decided to shop three Huntsville grocery stores; Star Market on Pratt Avenue in Huntsville, Kroger on Drake Avenue and Publix on Whitesburg Drive.
First up: Star Market. Two WHNT News 19 producers went undercover, armed with hidden cameras. We submitted six coupons -- three bogus and three valid. The Star Market cashier accepted them all without hesitation.
Second Stop: Publix. At this location we followed suit, submitting the fakes along with valid coupons. The cashier accepted all the coupons. At one point, there appeared to be a little hesitation by the cashier. However, money was exchanged and our producers were out the door.
Third and final stop: Kroger. We followed the same protocol and received no questioning on our counterfeits. Oddly enough, we were questioned about a valid coupon when buying a toothbrush.
After we compiled our hidden camera footage, we went back to our local retailers looking for answers. After all, our coupons have some major red flags. For example, one of the coupons was $4.00 off a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper. That's about the cost of the product and should be a major warning for cashiers. Additionally, the coupon for $3.00 off Oscar Meyer Deli Fresh Turkey had a bad expiration date of November 31st. With only 30 days in November, it appears the crook who designed the fake online coupon wasn’t on his A-game.
Kroger Manager Andre Reynolds spoke to WHNT News 19 on camera about the coupons. We were surprised when he told us that he wouldn't have accepted the Dr. Pepper coupon.
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"Yes, I wouldn’t have taken this coupon -- the discoloration of it, the print out of it, the way the bar codes are centered, doesn't look like a legit coupon to me," said Reynolds.
Reynolds said Kroger has a training program in place to detect fraud. But he admitted the counterfeits we brought through the Drake location store looked legitimate to the common eye.
Brenda Reid, Publix Media and Community Relations Manager, issued this written statement to WHNT News 19.
"Please keep in mind that our primary goal is to offer the best possible shopping experience to our customers. We respect their time and value their business by insuring that their experience at the register is a pleasant one. Therefore, we encourage our cashiers to review coupons and look for any alterations and to validate that the coupon usage falls within our coupon policy. Unfortunately, fraudulent coupons exist and end up costing the industry a great deal of money. However, the good outweighs the bad."
As for Star Market, they were shocked at how legitimate the counterfeits looked. Store Director Doug Owens admitted, "If someone was paying attention that would be pretty obvious that it wasn't real!"
He did say Star Market isn't really a hot spot for super couponers, but he will use our investigative findings as a training tool for the future.
"This could become a large issue for us if it continues to multiply," Owens said.
WHNT News 19 also spoke with Andrea Barnes, a local businesswoman who founded the website The Q-Tipping Mom. Barnes teaches couponing classes and teaches people how to coupon, where to save and find paper bargains and how to coupon ethically. She also came across an email with our three fraudulent coupons and is now warning her clients against them.
"Most of the people that do coupon are your housewives, your moms, your dads," said Barnes. "They would never dream of going into a grocery store and sticking their hand in the register and taking cash out. But when they use a fraudulent coupon, they are doing exactly that."
Barnes is fearful if these coupons to continue to be accepted, retailers will continue eating the cost and the effects of the loss of revenue will trickle down to consumers. She urges consumers to do due diligence and retailers to take a closer look.
"I'm going to be very mad when I can't go to the grocery store and save 80 percent because somebody was using fraudulent coupons," said Owens