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?
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.”
Bogus coupon or not?
- If it’s free, then flee. “There are no legitimate offers for free products, without any purchase, that can be printed from a home computer,” says Miller. Authentic online freebies require you to sign up, and the manufacturer then mails the coupon to you. But real buy-one, get-one free coupons and those promising a percentage or specific amount off can be printed online.
- If a coupon is displayed onscreen as an image, it’s usually counterfeit or unauthorized. Manufacturers avoid showing actual coupons to prevent their replication.
- Legitimate coupons always list an expiration date, and typically a specific product size. This info is often absent in fakes.
- For real print-and-use savings, stick to offers at manufacturers’ websites or reputable coupon sites such as www.coupons.com, www.coolsavings.com and www.couponmom.com. Unless you have previously enrolled at a website to get coupon offers, don’t click on any e-mailed offers you receive.
- If you wonder if a particular coupon is real, go to a page on the Coupon Information Corporation site where you can see images of phony coupons.
Sid Kirchheimer is author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
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