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Scam Alert

Getting Clipped by Coupons

Using counterfeit coupons could cost you

It’s a scam that’s more likely to disrupt the checkout line than your credit line. So why should you care about a current surge in counterfeit coupons?

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Well, try to use them and you could pay a price far greater—would you believe getting arrested?—than any savings you might get if the checkout clerk is fooled by the coupon and gives you the discount.

As more cash-strapped consumers turn to the Internet for print-to-save offers, hackers have taken notice, creating a virtual explosion of online coupon scams. It’s a funny kind of game—in most cases, the people who create the counterfeits don’t have any way to profit from them. The goal just seems to be to gain “street cred” in the hacker community by creating something that turns up all over the country. No doubt some of these folks fancy themselves modern-day Robin Hoods, helping the down-and-out rip off merchants.

But here’s how counterfeit coupons can hurt you—and why you need to be vigilant trying to pinch pennies online.

Clicking on links promising an online coupon—especially when the links are distributed via e-mail or posted at online message forums—can infect your computer with malware that provides hackers with your files, passwords and online bank account numbers.

One way you can almost guarantee you’ll be burned is to enter an online auction for a batch of coupons. Chances are good that they’ll be counterfeit—and never be delivered, even if you “win” the auction. But if you do succeed in downloading counterfeit coupons and printing them out, your problems may just be beginning.

Hackers try to make each coupon so realistic that it’ll scan at the cash register just like a real one. But often the fake gets flagged by registers or alert employees. What happens then? It’s at best embarrassing. Your coupon is refused. Or you might be banned from the store. And “some people have been arrested for redeeming counterfeit coupons,” says Bud Miller of the Coupon Information Corporation, a watchdog group that represents most U.S. food, beauty and other product manufacturers that issue coupons. Law enforcement agencies also go after the coupons’ creators.

Even if you don’t get caught, there’s a social issue to consider. Your redemption of a fake coupon raises the store’s costs of doing business—totals can add up to millions of dollars. These costs get passed along to customers in the form of higher prices. “And because this problem is so widespread,” says Miller, “some retailers are now refusing any online print-at-home coupons, which hurts all shoppers.”

Next: Is your Internet coupon bogus or not? >>

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