Couponing is as popular as ever as coupon stacking goes digital and shoppers are eager to save. Coupon fraud is also rampant, as scammers use fake coupons to save big or sell coupons and gift cards for profit.
Coupon scams aren’t just big scores from fraudulent extreme couponing schemes. In a recent study, 52 percent of consumers admit that they’ve tried to use an expired coupon and another 48 percent have knowingly tried to apply a coupon to the wrong product.
$2.7 billion in coupons were redeemed in 2018, so the intentional misuse of coupons is a big problem for retailers. Coupon fraud is considered a crime and can be enforced by local, state, or federal officers.
We’ve gathered all of the signs of coupon fraud as well as fake coupon red flags to help you shop safely.
What Is Coupon Fraud?
Coupon fraud is the intentional misuse of coupons or the duplication and alteration of coupons. Retailers and consumers can both participate in coupon fraud, and these actions typically fall into one of the four following categories of fraud.
Copying coupons is counterfeiting, illegal, and a common form of coupon fraud. This includes copying coupons you received in the Sunday paper, using copies you get from friends or family, and downloading copies of print coupons online.
Coupons should only be used once, and the original coupon is typically taken by the retailer. Manufacturers don’t reimburse stores for photo-copied coupons, and these losses can add up quickly for businesses.
Breaking Coupon Redemption Policies
Redemption policies are the fine print at the bottom of most coupons. These often include terms for how many products you can buy with a coupon, whether the coupon is stackable, and expiration dates.
Intentionally using the wrong coupon for the wrong size, brand, or other variations of a product is fraudulent coupon use.
Stealing Coupons and Inserts
Stealing Sunday paper inserts and other coupons is another common form of coupon fraud. This is theft and illegal, and it’s technically punishable by law. Scammers often steal these inserts to resell online for a profit, and the purchase of these coupons also contributes to fraud.
Distributing Coupons for Profit
Buying or selling coupons is illegal, and there’s no legitimate way to redeem purchased coupons. Selling coupons violates most manufacturers’ redemption policy and technically voids the coupons for use.
While the sale of coupons isn’t permitted, you can purchase coupons from coupon clipping services. In this case, you’re paying for the service of coupon clipping rather than the coupons themselves.
How to Spot a Fake Coupon
Fake coupons can be hard to spot as scammers become better at hiding them. Fake coupons can be entirely fabricated, photo-shopped copies of real coupons, or direct copies of real coupons. All of these variations are fraudulent coupons that aren’t redeemable.
If you’re questioning your coupon, check its validity with the Coupon Information Center (CIC) and look for these red flags.
Fake coupons are often missing important information that was forgotten or purposely excluded. Most coupons include these key features that help cashiers redeem them for discounts:
- Barcode or coupon code
- Redemption requirements
- Expiration date
If your coupon excludes this information, it’s likely altered or entirely faked. Compare it against other manufacturer or retailer coupons for verification.
1. Do the coupon’s information and requirements make sense?
If a coupon includes all of the above details, you also want to make sure these details make sense.
A coupon’s discount obviously shouldn’t cost more than the item. So, if you’re eyeing a $5 off coupon for Target hand soap, which regularly retails at $3.50 a bottle, it’s likely a fake. Target wouldn’t provide a coupon that gives you that item for free and then some.
Similarly, a coupon for $1.50 off laundry detergent at Kohl’s wouldn’t make sense since it’s not a product they offer.
Coupons also shouldn’t require any personal information or payment to access. Some retailers may offer discounts if you join their email list, but asking for details like your Social Security number, address, and credit card information is suspect and you shouldn’t provide this information.
2. Does the coupon look real?
Your first hint that a coupon is fake will probably be visual — does the coupon even look real? Reproduction of print coupons is often fraud, so a photo-copied coupon is a sure sign of a fake.
Of course, some scammers will alter or fabricate a coupon to sell or share. Compare a fishy coupon with other coupons from the same retailer or manufacturer. Keep an eye out for:
- The wrong logo or branding
- Differing fonts
- Missing details, like redemption requirements or expiration dates
- Typos and grammatical errors
Real coupons go through an editing process and must meet brand guidelines, so real coupons should have pretty similar design details.
3. Is the coupon too good to be true?
Everyone has come across a deal that’s just too good to be true. Coupons advertising expensive items for free with no purchase required are likely fake. This excludes freebies like makeup samples and retailers known for similar promotions, like Harbor Freight.
Impressive discounts like 50 percent off your full grocery purchase are also sure signs of a fake coupon. Most retailers offer set discounts on specific products, and those rarely go over 50 percent off — though you may find clearance sales that offer steeper discounts.
4. Did the retailer provide the coupon?
Manufacturer coupons are widely available in coupon inserts and online, but store-specific coupons are typically provided by the retailer through a branded mailer, email, or in-store. Be mindful of where you find a retailer coupon to decide if it’s fake.
Viral coupons that circle social media are often too good to be true and typically fake. These are designed to get attention and may link to external sites for several nefarious purposes, like collecting data. Coupons should link directly to the retailer’s site, so don’t click on any hidden hyperlinks or questionable URLs if you don’t trust the source.
You can also check for blacklisted coupons on the CIC site.
How to Report Coupons for Fraud
You can report any coupon fraud or fake coupons you see to the appropriate parties to protect other shoppers and retailers. Your first step should be to alert the authorities and report scams to the appropriate agency below:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- United States Postal Service (USPS)
- Coupon Information Center (CIC)
You can also report online coupons by reviewing coupon codes you find on coupon sites and flagging fake coupons on social media.
Coupon fraud online and in-store is a problem for retailers and shoppers looking for the best deal. Knowing how to spot fake coupons and scammers can save you time and money, and help reduce the impact and industry of coupon fraud as a whole.