This letter comes from a reader dealing with a tricky situation. Since my last few columns have dealt with counterfeit coupons, I thought this was an important story to share.
Dear Jill: I’m in a world of trouble due to coupon misuse! How can I correct this matter?
A friend taught me to coupon last year. She also taught me how to abuse the system with photocopying. I never really thought it was right, but I never thought there’d be repercussions.
A few months ago, she started borrowing and copying my coupons since she maxed out the number of coupons she could print on her account. Last week, I discovered I couldn’t print mine, either. I had a sinking feeling that this was happening because we were both using my account. I spoke with her, expressed my concern and disappointment over losing my printing privileges, and we both agreed to destroy any copies we still had in our possession. But then she hit me with the big one: She made copies of my coupons for other people, too.
How can I redeem myself and regain my printing privileges? I’m too afraid to contact the company because I fear some type of harsh punishment. I should have known better. I’m hurt, embarrassed and scared to death of possible legal action on the company’s part. What can I do? – Scared Couponer
Dear Scared: I’m sorry to hear that your friend advocated photocopying and reusing coupons. It’s coupon fraud, plain and simple, and reading the fine print on any coupon will tell you that. And yet, this isn’t the first email I’ve received from serial photocopiers who don’t seem to care that what they’re doing is a crime... until they’re about to get caught, that is.
Printable coupons from major websites have a unique identifier, typically an additional bar code or serial number. This identifier is tied to your computer’s IP address. That means any coupon misuse can be traced back to you.
When your photocopies come through the redemption house, several things happen.
First, the clearinghouse scans the coupons and flags any photocopies. The store is not reimbursed for photocopied coupons. If someone prints a $1 coupon and makes twenty copies, the store will only receive $1 in reimbursement, a $20 loss. It’s the same as shoplifting $20 worth of merchandise from the store. I don’t understand how anyone could see it any other way. Someone pays for that $20 in fraudulent coupons. It’s not you and it’s not the manufacturer, which means the store takes the loss.
At the clearinghouse, photocopied coupons are pulled from the conveyor belt, tagged and reported. Coupon processing systems keep these fraudulent coupons for at least one year. Once photocopies are identified, coupon sites can disable the printing plug-in on the computer that generates the fakes. That’s what happened to you. It’s highly unlikely that a company will restore printing privileges once they’ve been revoked.
Unfortunately, having printing privileges revoked is only the first step. The company can also ask the Internet service provider for records that show if the customer was signed onto that IP address at the time the fraudulent coupons were printed. They will then be able to tie a specific person or account to that instance of fraud. At that point, they may prosecute.
Coupons state in the fine print that they are void if copied and that any other usage constitutes fraud. You can’t argue that you weren’t aware of these consequences just because you failed to read the coupon’s terms.
It’s irresponsible for anyone to advocate photocopying coupons, especially someone who uses coupons often. It saddens me that after her own printing privileges were turned off, your friend continued her actions on your computer, copying and distributing an unknown quantity of coupons to an unknown number of people. She cost you the printing privileges on that computer, but if you ever buy a replacement, you’ll have a new, unique hardware address. And with a new computer comes a clean start. Go forth, but photocopy coupons no more!
Email your own couponing victories and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.