Coupon Barcode Decoding: Yes or No? (and why?)


Almost 2 years ago, I wrote a post about Coupon Barcode Decoding. As many of you know, I tend to get rather passionate about Coupon Ethics and everything in me tells me that decoding barcodes (in order to use a higher value coupon for 1 product on a lower-priced item not listed in the coupon description) is just WrongWrongWrong.

Just as a refresher, from my original post:

BarCode Decoding is:

Using a coupon good on (for example)  ”Brand X Shampoo” on “Brand X Styler” just because the bar code matches up, unless the text of the coupon states that it may be used for a styler.

Using a coupon for a completely unrelated item, just because the manufacturers code on the barcode matches.

Taking advantage of a glitch in the value code section of the bar code to buy less of a product in order to get the same discount.

Using a coupon in any way other than the wording of the coupon

BarCode Decoding is not:

checking a bar code to ensure that it is a store coupon and not a manufacturers coupon (which means that, if it is a store coupon, it can be stacked with a manufacturers coupon at many stores)

matching up a bar code to ensure that a coupon will work on an item that is not pictured on the coupon, but that you are reasonably sure is included in the description (and example of this might be using a Johnson’s bath & body item coupon that has pictures of baby wash on it on a Johnson’s Buddies item.)

using the fact that the manufacturer ID “matches up” (as long as the wording does as well) to explain to a cashier why the coupon is valid on that item, even though it might have beeped when scanned.

Since I originally wrote that post, I pretty much considered this a non-issue.  However, with the recent dust-up over J’Aime Kirlew decoding coupons on Extreme Couponing, the topic has yet again resurfaced.  And because I am the Master of Procrastination and always enjoy watching an online Train Wreck, I have found myself being sucked in to the TLC Extreme Couponing Facebook Fan Page and the comments (the default view on their Facebook page won’t show you Fan Comments…click on “Most Recent’ to see comments)

And I am shocked by the number of people on Facebook and online forums that are defending Coupon Barcode Decoding…and I am wondering if I am being too much of a Goody-Two-Shoes on this issue.  Not that I WOULD decode coupons to take advantage of a glitch in the system, but it seems like I am starting to be in the minority on this issue.

So what do you say?  Do you feel that Barcode Decoding is acceptable? In the 2 years since I wrote that post, the economy has taken more of a downward spiral.  Does the current economy make it more acceptable?  What do you think?

** please note:  I am inviting healthy and respectful discussion.  You are free to call me the biggest prude known to man (or of course, the most awesome of awesomeness 😉 ).  I have no intention of deleting any comments that disagree with me or any other readers, unless they are outright rude or employ namecalling**


  1. Deborah K says

    I rarely use coupons. Sometimes I find one and think wow, I can save some money. (I know bad but until I have more time that’s the way it works). However, I don’t think a coupon should be used for anything other than the intended product it was created for. What are we teaching our children if we “cheat” on the little things?

  2. Laura L says

    I will agree with you on that it’s wrong. The companies don’t just put words on there to make coupons pretty. I do not think it’s ok for people to defraud the system. Sure, I would LOVE to save more money, but I will be happy with the coupons I am given.

  3. says

    I am 100% against decoding. There’s no need to figure out what a barcode says….all you have to do is read a coupon and it says “Save $1 on….”. If you are using it you need to be purchasing the item that it states on the coupon. Any other use is fraudulent.
    That being said, I don’t even break down a barcode to decide whether it’s a store coupon or a manufacturer. I take it at face value and look at the top for either “manufacturer” or “store”. That’s just me though.

  4. Pink says

    Stealing is stealing even if it under the guise of just taking advantage of a loophole or glitch in the system. It’s fraud. Period.

  5. Heather Hilscher says

    The entire reason for the necessity of having ethics and morals comes down to these types of situations. Most of us would not tolerate a thief who habitually purse-snatches in our neighborhood. We’d be calling the police. Even knowing that “time were hard” would most likely not sway most people from believing it was wrong.

    How is this different? Trying to maniupulate a system so you can save money is just plain wrong. And it’s stealing. It doesn’t matter what the logic behind it.

    If we don’t draw that line and then stay on the side of what’s right and good, then it will keep getting erased and redrawn further and further away….until we might as well condone looting if “I’m hurting financially.”

    This is the not so good side of the American ideal…personal freedom. This disregard for how it might effect anyone else (the store, the manufacturer, other couponers who get slapped with restrictions) is completely selfish.

    And it’s wrong. So wrong.

  6. Christine H says

    I’m with you Mindi! It is TOTALLY wrong. Even the economy is no excuse…that would be like saying that someone who steals food from a supermarket to feed their kids is ok just because ultimately they were trying to do good. I’m sure there are times when I have used a coupon on the wrong thing by mistake and never even realized. Someone who is totally spending all of that time going through barcodes just to scam makes it even more wrong (intent). Finally, adding insult to injury, they are not just buying 1 to feed their family, they are buying 100 and doing what with it??? It seems to me that many are buying for the high and they get further high on looking at their stock. I have a decent stockpile but I very rarely have to throw something away unopened because it sat too long. There is no way that this stuff is being used before it expires. Also, if they are donating it, I suspect that the agencies they are donating to would not want the goods if they knew that the items were in essence stolen. When they donate those items I assume they are getting receipts for the donations which then heads into tax fraud? All in all it just gives the rest of us honest couponers a really bad name!

  7. Megan says

    I read on another blog that there is a new technology that will prevent you from using a coupon in this manner. I have read many of your articles on coupon fraud and I think you make many good points and I wish more people would read through them. Thank you for writing and sharing.

  8. Christine H says

    Oh and one more thing…I’m sure if there was an “error” not in their favor, these same people wouldnt let 5 cents go by (as will I but if you know you have already cheated the store out of all of that money do you really need to fight with them over a nickel???)

  9. pangolin says

    It seems wrong to me to do this. The issuers of the coupons and the stores that accept them have to keep changing their rules and regulations concerning coupons. An action (using them wrong) is creating a reaction. If it was OK to do, then no one would be trying to ‘fix’ the problem.

  10. Tonya Mills says

    I have been couponing for over 4 years, pretty heavily, not just casually, and I didn’t even know you could do this until all this hub bub came about. Color me stupid! Anyway, I have a nice stockpile, get lots of great deals, even here in the land of no doubles, so why do this anyway?

  11. Shannon says

    I agree with everyone above me. It’s wrong and it’s stealing, plain and simple. When I first started couponing a few years ago, I came across a site that showed people how to decode barcodes. I knew right away it was morally wrong and most likely illegal. Never tried it and never will, no matter how much money it would save me.

  12. says

    I’ve never heard of this before but I’ve been using coupons here & there for years.
    Recently I didn’t like the way that I was treated at a Rite-Aid when I tried to use a legitimate coupon.
    The cashier kept saying “coupon fraud”, loudly, and I thought that she made a big fuss even though I didn’t insist that they accept it, I was just curious as-to what the problem was.
    (I felt like I was being accused of trying to do something wrong when I simply said fine and asked some questions about the policy-it was not an internet coupon, it was one-of those where they have to write-in how much the item cost for one free bottle of Excedrin©).
    I even looked at the coupon more closely and noticed that it had been water-marked all-over the back with some kind-of “anti-fraud” logo!
    This de-coding business is an interesting idea, and usually I make sure to read the fine print to see if a certain size is mentioned, or excluded.
    If not, I almost always go for the smallest size product to try and get a freebie.(1!)
    I have had coupons rejected for choosing the wrong size before, so I just assumed that was how the codes worked. (by what it says on the face or not)
    Now that I know about this trick, I would really like to know what the stores & manufacturers say about it?
    I certainly wouldn’t try this with multiple quantities like the hoarders on Extreme Coupons without knowing the rules!
    And I really don’t think that I would have the nerve to tell a cashier how to do their job, especially if there was a chance that they could get in trouble for it.
    I’ve worked a cash-register before and one boss threatened to fire me because I was off by $6.00! Also, back in the day, we had to stay after work and count the money in our drawer until it matched what the receipts said and any mistake meant counting it all-over again.
    So what do they say? I know what it says on the coupon, but I would really like to know what the companies say about this.Thank-you for explaining this and covering the ethics. I hope that TLC will include this topic in the series.

  13. says

    I was raised on coupons, and now use them for my own shopping and to help out my parents and NEVER have we EVER had to stoop to that. Just because the economy is bad, that is not an excuse. I come from a family of grocers and this hurts businesses, which in turn hurts employees and their families. Even when both my parents faced lay offs, and a brother who was the sole provider for his family, no one ever stole or used coupons to get products free in a way that was not proper usage.

    There is a little thing called integrity, and the folks who think it is okay have obviously never had any.

  14. Julie says

    Whether the excuse is “the economy is bad” or “just because I can,” wrong is wrong. A good stockpile isn’t built overnight. By following the rules and building slowly, anyone can use the coupon system to provide for her household’s needs without spending a fortune.

  15. c says

    Stealing is stealing; a little, a lot, because of plenty or scarcity. Stealing is wrong and this is stealing. We all suffer the consequences.

  16. Heidi says

    My grocery store won’t allow you to scan your own coupons now, even at the self-checkout lines. The cashier does it for you and they said that it’s because of all the fraud that they’ve encountered with coupons lately.

    People need to stop taking advantage of the system and companies and just remember that their actions effect others too.

  17. DianeScraps says

    What she’s doing is soooo wrong it makes me sick!

    If speaking against the decoding makes me a prude – then so be it!

  18. Janice K. says

    100% wrong! It will just mess things up for honest couponers even more. Just like everything else.

  19. Brandi @ says

    I totally agree with you and I feel that it is etically wrong to use the decoding system. There is a reason that this should not be used – and whatever happened to using coupons for what they are? I mean are you going to walk into a store and put a couple packs of gum in your pocket just because no one is looking?? Why would you feel it is ok to use coupons for items they are not meant for? I’m with you Mindi!

  20. k says

    It’s wrong. If you need to ask if it’s ok, then it’s your heart telling you it’s not.

    I LOVE your blog because of the ethics.
    I have stopped reading certain other blogs in the past because I found them unethical.

  21. Michele says

    I recently learned how to decode a coupon for the purpose of knowing why it was beeping. The Friskies $1/15 beeps and cashiers always want to input the price of one can and not the $1 printed on the coupon. The coupon is coded for one item which causes the beeps. Once I figured this out I knew how to teach cashiers.

  22. says

    Absolutely not! You are not a goody-two-shoes. Coupon decoding is why Target lost so much money and started turning couponers away during Christmas in 2009, at least in my area. People were using $5 and $10 off printable Target coupons on .79 items and getting away with it. Ridiculous!

    What frustrates me is that the coupons are coded that way by the manufacturer and that the store computer takes them. Why isn’t there a way to avoid the problem from the source? Then jerks wouldn’t use them inappropriately/criminally.

  23. Jennifer T says

    I use coupons and to me its money saved . I didn’t even know about the decoding until your post about it last week. Its stealing and is a crime , they should get in trouble for that . We honest coupon clippers will have a harder time saving money if this continues and doesn’t change. Also I would like to add that I cant stand the ones that clear off the shelves and don’t leave any for us honest ones. P.S My Husband Is a Police Officer and he agreed that the ones who decode should be charged with coupon fraud and the store employees should check the front of coupon and verify before scanning.

  24. Tara says

    I am totally with everyone else on here! What kind of example are we teaching our children if we don’t follow the rules? I have a 3 year old son who goes to the store with me and if he want something he will ask me “Mommy, is it on sale and do we have a coupon?” and he know if not he’s not going to get it but when it is on sale he will. I buy multiple copies of the paper because I don’t even want to “buy” the coupons. Last week Giant had a great deal with GM products and my son loves the B.C. fruit snacks. I had enough coupns to get him 16 boxes that will last well into the fall and I never even thought to try and use a different GM or BC coupon to try and get the wrong product. I agree that if you just wait for the sales you can pretty much get anything free or cheap. I also don’t understand why if this woman did something illegal she is not being brought up on charges? TLC obviously has all the footage so this should be charged as a crime!

  25. Rory says

    It’s wrong and will only hurt those of us who try to do it the way it was intended. Plus, isn’t it so much more satisfying to run a *real* deal that you figured out than a fake deal?

  26. Anna says

    I don’t understand why there’s a debate over whether coupon fraud coupon fraud is right or wrong. It’s not harmless! Everyone will pay higher prices to cover the loss. Shame on TLC for glorifying that cheat!

  27. nikki says

    I have a question about barcodes… I clipped 4 loreal Vive pro shamp or cond coupons out of papers I bought. When I went to rite aid & tried to use them on the sale this week only 1 of the had 2 barcodes & the other 3 only had 1 barcode. They couldn’t scan the 3 with only one barcode so they wouldn’t accept it. I lost $3 on that deal… So, my question is why would a manufact. coupon only have one barcode & the non scannable one at that???

  28. MissyLiz says

    Like someone else said, learning decoding so that you know why your coupon is/isn’t working can be a good thing. Using it to take advantage of a glitch in the system is just wrong. I mean if you are going to ignore the words telling you what to buy, what words on the coupon will you ignore next?? The part where it says that you cannot copy coupons? Or maybe “limit one coupon per purchase”, so buy 1 item and use 3 coupons for it?? I mean if you aren’t going to heed what the offer is actually for then….

    As i’ve mentioned before, I work retail. I train my cashiers to look at the coupon when they are taking them. The answer that “it didn’t beep” isn’t a good one in my store. For example, a lot of p&g coupons will scan at our registers for months after they expire where I work. So are we supposed to take it, just because it scans? Conversely, the $.55 off any 1 skintimate coupon from an insert a few weeks ago created a ton of problems because it beeped. As it turns out that particular coupon seems to have somehow only been coded for the raspberry scent even though the coupon itself said “any”. Should we have refused it just because the register beeped? My answers would have to be no and no.

  29. says

    All I could think of, and I have said it here before. I can’t afford anyone committing coupon fraud. I NEED the coupons to help us feed our family. I have a small stock pile compared to most. Mine is mostly cereal, and honestly if others fraud the system eventually the system is going to break down to stop it. They are going to tighten the rules or take them away, and I simply cannot afford THAT. The likely-hood is the people doing this may need to due to lack of funds, but please consider what will happen if we no longer have coupons to help.

  30. Andrea Prado says

    Its wrong, if people abuse coupons like that there will be less coupons circulating, period. Manufacturers and stores alike will shy away from issuing coupons if they are being abused. That show shouldn’t exist, stacking coupons, going when you can double them – great! But to that extreme and with all the hoarding they shouldn’t beshowing more people how to do that… its just going to mess it up for the average person trying to save a buck. We will all be screwed!

  31. Lana says

    I think the term “Barcode Decoding” here should be replaced with “Barcode Decoding Misuse”, or “Barcode Decoding Abuse”. The decoding itself is not wrong, as it is just to find more information. The ways in using that extra information can be right or wrong.

    About the product (family) codes, on the manufacturers’ part, if they want their coupons to be used strictly as indicated in the offer, they should code their product family accordingly. If they, e.g. on one extreme, just use one product family code for their entire product range, then it is not entirely user fault if everything will go through. I believe the coupons are machine processed by their barcodes in the clearinghouses. To manually match offer description with store invoices will be costly. (It has already taking so much of cashier and customer time nationwide to carefully match offer description and items purchased. For me, ideally each code should only have one description.. :D) The present barcode system has limits, so manufacturers have to plan their product family codes well.

  32. MelissaLA says

    I don’t believe decoding is appropriate, and you should abide by the wording on the coupon. HOWEVER, I have laughed quite a bit reading many of these comments by those who take the “moral high ground” and have “integrity”, and here’s why: I bet many acquire coupons through Ebay or some coupon clipping service. Many feel there is nothing wrong with this, but they do think decoding is wrong. Both are wrong, and if you have “integrity” and ‘morals” then you shouldn’t be buying coupons. Why? The majority of coupons STATE in English (the written word that you are suppose to follow on the coupon, remember??) something such as “May not (or VOID) if reproduced, PURCHASED, TRANSFERED or traded …” That’s right, that coupon you use which you acquired via Ebay or a service is VOID because you purchased it. IF you want to sidestep that by saying you paid for their time to clip it, well, guess what? The coupon is void if it is TRANSFERED. And THAT you CANNOT sidestep. Transfer means just that. Transfered. And that’s what happens to the coupons when you get them from Ebay or a clipping service.
    SO…all you upstanding citizens criticizing those who use coupons incorrectly, remember that you are doing the SAME thing if you acquire them from Ebay or clipping services.

    • Mindi Cherry says

      Melissa –

      While I respect your opinion, not everyone buys from a clipping service or eBay. As a matter of fact, I have NEVER bought from either one of those.

      Please don’t be so quick to judge people that you have never met, especially on issues which they have never mentioned.

      Oh – and by the way – don’t get so hung up on the word “transferred”. By that logic, I can be thrown in jail for saying to my neighbor, “Hey! I have 4 Tidy Cats coupons, even though cats are evil soulless creatures and I can’t stand them….would you like a few kitty litter coupons?”


  33. Couponer says

    Ok but I have a question….if the manufacturer puts out a coupon BOGO free and the UPC ends in 01 that is allowing you to get the free item free without having to buy the first item….if they didnt want you to be able to do that then they would have the UPC code read the last two digits 14…so if its wrong why does the manufacture allow it why dont they code all the BOGO Free with a 14 and not a 01???

  34. Holly says

    Committing fraud with coupons is completely wrong. It’s a short-sighted, selfish behavior that nets an immediate reward for the criminal and results in harm to the rest of society a few years down the road, if not sooner. We’ve seen this kind of behavior repeated in our society over the past few decades or so with insider trader and the mortgage industry to name a few. The cost of shoplifting is passed onto consumers in the form of increased costs. This is tantamount to shoplifting. Ultimately, manufacturers and retailers will change the industry in response to this type of crime and the ones who will be hurt the most are families like mine. My husband has been out of work for a year and my chronic health issues make it nearly impossible for me to be reliable enough to hold down a job.

  35. MElastiGirl says

    I totally respect “the prude”! You write about your ethics in a very nonjudgmental manner. I am a little taken aback about some of the self-righteous responses, though. Quite frankly, I don’t feel the least bit guilty about using a coupon for brand x shampoo for brand x conditioner if the coupon goes through. Bottom line–it’s a brand x product, and brand x is reimbursing the store. I am a technology geek, however, and I’m also all for companies coding their coupons to prevent misuse. I would never photocopy coupons or try to counterfeit them. But only a small percentage of manufacturer coupons are actually redeemed, and if I can game the system and not risk much, I just do what I have to do. For those of you who say a poor economy is no excuse, well, I wouldn’t trade my problems for anybody else’s. We get food stamps periodically because my husband’s commission-only job isn’t feeding our kids, and my chronic, progressive genetic condition renders me unable to work. I have to stretch things to keep a roof over our heads. And the food stamps don’t cover pet food, so when I see that my $2 off 6 cans of dog food x will actually work on three cans, well, I take advantage. Food stamps don’t work on pet food, which I suppose is a good thing since I’m sure there are people desperate enough to eat the stuff themselves. I acquired my pets back when I had a six-figure income, and now I can barely afford to feed them. So before the rest of you call for me to be drawn and quartered, take a walk in my shoes. I’m also the kind of person who points out to a cashier if she’s given me too much change. And when I get a crazy deal on something, I make it a point to donate half my haul (or more, if I really clean up) to those needier than we are. I don’t keep a “stockpile.” And couponing isn’t a “rush” for me. It was a lot more fun before it became a necessity. For those who have taken a whirl on the public assistance merry-go-round and managed to get off the ride, good for you. I’m desperately ill, and there is no end in sight. Where I live, it’s a huge hassle to get assistance, and the local welfare office is not exactly kind or helpful–they manage to make me feel like a whore every time I go in there. I would never steal, but I can understand why some might find that preferable to dealing with our charming local government employees. And while the staff at my neighborhood Giant food store cheerfully welcomes me and my coupons–frequently overriding the ones that beep–my local Safeway just berated me for going through the self checkout with my food stamp card. I misread the sign, and she made me feel dirty about it, announcing in front of everyone in earshot, “You can’t use food stamps in this line–that’s why it isn’t listed on the sign!” So, no, I didn’t feel the least bit bad using my expired cat food coupons or getting that dollar off the small Cream of Wheat instead of the big one. In fact, I put another coupon in the slot and hung onto my especially valuable dog food coupon for next time. I’m sick of all the whining about how people like me are ruining it for the rest of you. If you have legit coupons and you’re being accused of fraud by an obnoxious store employee, call a manager. Or shop somewhere else. Until technology catches up, I’m doing what I have to do to survive. And I’d really like to know–show me a consumer who has been arrested for using the wrong coupon. The worst that happens–unless you are counterfeiting–is that your coupon is refused. When that happens, I politely apologize and plead ignorance. Considering all my family has been through, it’s hardly a humiliation. Bottom line–we all draw the line somewhere.