Coupon Ethics: Why Stores Don’t Trust Us


Remember the saying “one bad apple destroys the whole bunch”?  Well, there are a bunch of bad apples out there and they are messing it up for many of us!

What are these people doing?

Counterfeit Coupons

last summer someone took a Target Printable that was good for $5 off any $25 toy purchase and Photoshopped it so that it was good for $5 off ANY purchase.  Before Target knew what was happening, they had been printed and redeemed by the thousands.  The fallout from that is still being felt by many Target shoppers as some cashiers still misinterpret the “don’t take that particular coupon” rule in to “don’t take any Internet Coupons”.

Recently a friend emailed me coupons that were good for a FREE 1lb box of Velveeta as well as a FREE roll of Reynolds Wrap.  They were in PDF form and with no expiration date and she wanted to know if they were real.  The problem is, they were scans of a 20-year old coupon and anyone using them would be committing Coupon Fraud (whether they knew it or not).  After a bit of digging on the Internets, I found that these coupons made the rounds a few months ago and many people walked out with bags full of free Velveeta and Reynolds wrap…..and the stores won’t get reimbursed one dime! (for more info on that coupon, click here)

Then there were the $5 coupons that were on Facebook a few months ago.  They got pulled very quickly but I think that was the time that my Acme started being extra-cautious about IPs.

Photocopying Internet Coupons:

As you might imagine, I tend to make couponing converts in my offline life.  One day one of my friends mentioned a coupon that I had linked to and was so excited because she had made 20 copies of it so that she could build her stockpile of that item.  I had to give her the bad news that using photocopied Internet Printables was a form of fraud. Internet Printables usually have a limit of 2 prints per computer, so the only way to legally get extra copies of the coupons was to find extra computers.

Self-Checkout scams:

Do you feel like you are scrutinized more at self-checkout more than when you go through a line with a cashier?  Blame it on the people who will, for example, scan their $2 Pampers coupon but put a coupon that they don’t want/need in the slot (allowing them to keep the Pampers coupon to use again).  I haven’t seen it done yet, but I’ve had quite a few people tell me that they have seen it happen!

Barcode Decoding:

I will talk about this more this week (probably Wednesday), but this is a serious issue that is getting more press (in that it is being promoted as a fine thing to do).  I have to tread gently on this issue because there is a way to do it that is borderline-acceptable and a way to do it that is just plain wrong.  But I am of the opinion that, no matter what the barcode says, the wording of the coupon is what matters.

So what can you do?

Try not to “fly under the radar” when using your coupons.  I try to shop at the same time of day at my local stores so that I usually am dealing with the same managers and cashiers.  I have been using coupons on a large scale for so long that I hope that I am seen as “one of the good ones” and as a person that they don’t need to suspect (at least, that is how I am treated at 3 of the 4 local stores).

Remember the saying “if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is”.  The scans of the Velveeta & Reynolds coupons should set off alarms in your head.  A $5 Pantene coupon is the stuff dreams are made of (at least – MY dreams).  These are the ones that usually end up on a sign at every cashier station that says “DO NOT ACCEPT!”

Be suspicious of any coupon sent to you in PDF form.  With the exception of the Rite Aid $5 off $25 coupons (and a coupon that an olive company had on their site a few months ago), PDF coupons are almost always unauthorized and can get you in to trouble.  Most manufacturers make their coupons available directly through their websites, through online coupon printers or through SmartSourceTarget makes their coupons available both through their website and with deals with other sites like A Full Cup and Hot Coupon World.

Speak up!  If you hear of someone photocopying Internet Printables, let them know that they shouldn’t be doing it (but be nice – they may not know what they are doing is wrong).  If you see someone “switching” coupons at Self-Checkout, tell the attendant.  I know that the second one may seem like a hard thing to do, but the benefit is twofold:  you are helping to prevent fraud and it might reinforce to the store employees that you are an honest couponer.

Have you done anything to help reduce fraud?  Spoken to anyone about any of these issues? (or is any of this something that you didn’t realize was wrong?  Post it in the comments!


  1. says

    Thank you for this great post. I am especially glad that you will be discussing later the barcode decoding. This is becoming increasingly more acceptable. I am seeing it more and more on the blogs that I read. It is very upsetting to me, because I feel that we couponers are scrutinzed enough as it is and will be even more so, with people using coupons in a way that they are not intended.
    On another note, there have been many PDF coupons that come directly from the manufacturers site and are legitimate. I suggest if there is a question to its legitimacy that the individual contact CIC.

    • Anonymous says

      I went to a coupon course that is teaching you to do “coupon decoding”. There was even a segment on the local news teaching you to do it. I guess they didn’t realize it was fraud. I look forward to reading your post on Wednesday!

      • Mindi says

        I would love to know exactly what the teaching is on this at thise classes. Ihave heard differing reports. One side is pretty tame…and the other side seems like they are teaching fraud. PLEASE email me with what you were taught, because I am still putting together my post for Wednesday!

  2. says

    Back in the day, you used to have to put your name and address on coupons, and while I realize that could have resulted in false information, this is just a thought … maybe it’s time to connect some accountability in the practice of couponing and require some sort of proof of id and/or credit card information from people using coupons in order to have contact information, catch fraudulent practices, and recover the money? Wouldn’t that help to make honest couponers feel more confident? As far as self checkout, I don’t think they should accept coupons there at all personally – fraud is simply much too easy at self checkout for those who are cheats and thieves because frankly, that’s what they are.

    I don’t know how some people live with themselves, because it isn’t the corporations who pay for fraud, it’s ALWAYS the consumer.

  3. says

    Great article! Wow…I never thought about putting the wrong coupon in the slot at self-checkout…I can’t believe people would do that! I’m also looking forward to your article on barcode decoding.

  4. says

    Same here, Corrie — I never even thought about putting the wrong coupon in the slot. In fact, if I have coupons, I don’t even bother trying to do self checkout since I figure it’s a lot easier to let a cashier deal with the coupons for me. On the rare occasion at WalMart when I do self-checkout with a coupon (I have only one or two items), the person in charge of watching the area always ends up having to come over and override the system anyway, so it’s a hassle for both of us.

  5. Julie says

    Great information. I don’t know much about the barcode decoding, so I’m looking forward to that post later this week.
    There are so many legitimate ways to save money using coupons, I just don’t understand why people spend so much time thinking up dishonest ways to use them.
    My husband often reminds me that if an honest person does something dishonest, his conscience will bother him. If a dishonest person does something dishonest, it’s second nature and he feels no guilt.

  6. Jennifer Y. says

    I only do self-checkout once in a while. Most of the time, it’s because I want to see how something rings up (to work out a scenerio/muliple transactions) and not hold up the line. I never even thought of putting a different coupon in the slot.

    I don’t have anything to hide, so regular check out works for me. I also like it because almost all of my dnd coupons will double there with no problem. I’m kind of afraid that they’ll beep at self checkout. Plus, it’s so much faster. I swear, I’m hitting “skip bagging” with every item at self checkout because the weight sensor or whatever is working right.

    A co-worker sent me those PDF coupons recently and it made my head explode. They are so obviously FAKE!! I emailed her as calmly as I could and said that they are fake and sent her links to the documents. I told her that the store would not get reimbursed for this. She emailed me back and said that her friend that forwarded it to her did redeem the coupons at a store a few days before. I felt like screaming, You’re STEALING and ruining it for the rest of us!!

    I actually printed out copies of those and plan to give them to the managers at my Acme.

    This also might be worth mentioning… when stores put coupons in local newspapers (which then end up on the internet), I believe those are not valid coupons either. They are intended to be cut from the paper version only. I noticed this a few months ago when CVS was putting 3.00/15.00 in some local papers and some blogs were promoting them.

    Barcode decoding seems like a whole other crazy thing… I don’t even know what that is!

  7. Kristin says

    Wow – I can’t believe some of the things that people do! I’m all for saving a buck, but unbelievable.

  8. Julie says

    My sister Kris and I have been talking about this a lot lately, our conclusion is that these people are incredibly selfish and will ruin savings for the rest of us who are honest and need the savings. This boils down to one word GREED, they are no better than those CEO’s on Wall St. who thought they were getting away with everything and we are paying the price for it! If you are one of those people who think it’s fun or funny to get away with this, you’re ruining it for everybody stop being so selfish and think about someone else for a change!!!!

  9. says

    As a retail manager, coupon fraud has a few effects on me. One,I get angry that people are cheating. It is very hard for me to see this day after day. My store does NOT get reimbursed for coupons, so it is a direct loss. Two, I get stressed because I HATE “fighting” with customers. THREE, I get depressed at how dishonest people are because for each person who says ” Oh I did not realize” I get three more that say”Fine I’ll come back later when YOU are not here.” Like I am on some personal vendetta. Because when I see a stack of ten, 30% off coupons when I know there are at most two out there it makes me frustrated. Plus it says right on there that it is one per customer per sale.

    As a shopper that loves coupons, my retail background has an effect on how I use them. I read the coupon very carefully and am totally open with the cashiers about how much I love coupons. In turn almost all cashiers tell me they are actually impressed with how much money can be saved.

  10. says

    Thank you! I try to be honest. One time at the store the cashier took all my coupons and instead of scanning them he just typed in the amounts to deduct. I was shocked cause I could have had anything in there. So now I make sure to match the exact product to the coupon so I know I’m being honest.

  11. fran says

    I never get those $3/$15, $4/$20, $5/25, etc. coupons from CVS emailed to me. They do email me coupons, but nothing really great like these. I’ve seen them on a site where you can print them. I asked a customer from CVS that I struck up a conversation with if she ever used these coupons from this site-she did use them. So I go into CVS with coupon in hand and it beeps. The manager asked me where I got it, was it emailed to me? I told the truth that I don’t get those emailed to me, that I got it online. She told me these coupons are fraud, but she will push it through. I said she didn’t have to do that. I certainly don’t want to commit fraud just to save $4.00. Needless, to say, I don’t print those coupons anymore. I’m going to contact CVS. I don’t think it’s fair that some people get these and other people don’t. Do you need to spend
    hundreds of dollars a month in order to get these?
    Also, I don’t remember where online that I read this: a woman printed a coupon for her friend from either or smartsource. The friend proceeded to copy said coupon. It came back to the friend who printed the coupon. Evidently there is a way they can track from the codes on the coupons, where the coupon was printed. She is barred from the website. She wasn’t aware of it, but she has to suffer the consequences-being barred from the site is a lot better that jail.

  12. Bonnie Kendrick says

    I try to be as honest as possible when I coupon for two reasons, my conscience and because I know they don’t trust us at all to begin with. I do struggle with Walgreens though. The deals don’t have limits per say, but they won’t print more than one RR in a transaction with more than one of the same product and they won’t print a RR when you buy the product and use the RR that printed from the last of the same deal. Does that mean I shouldn’t be getting more than one or do they not want to limit their deals, but don’t want it to be easy for us to clean their shelves off? Anybody have an opinion? I don’t want to clean off anybody’s shelves but a couple of each deal per week makes it easier to build a stockpile.

  13. Manisha says

    This is a good post. Thanks, Mindi.

    Just for a different approach to some of these comments about self checkout. I almost always do self checkout, especially if I have lots of coupons. For one reason, I know what I am doing is legal, and I don’t want to have to argue with someone about stacking coupons or working a deal. For free items and some others, sure, I have to get help to key them in, but a regular cashier would have to do that anyway. I just leave all of those to the end, and the person does all of them at one time.

    I don’t like to go in the regular lines, particularly if I’m splitting transactions. I hate to hold people up. In addition, I almost always hate the way the baggers bag, and if The Boy is with me, he will do it, but if he isn’t, then I can’t watch the register, manage the coupons, AND make sure the eggs are being smashed. Self checkout helps me since I ring and bag.

    Lastly, because I am scanning, I have a better sense if something rings up wrong. Almost every trip, something doesn’t work quite right.

    All of that said, I HATE when people scam. I am legitimately working deals and using coupons, and there are people out there who are defrauding and making me look bad. Luckily, my Acme knows me, and they don’t question me at all. And, if they ever do, I’m always legitimate.

    I still feel bad for using my expired coupons the other day. Waaaaah. :(

    • Mindi says

      Hi Manisha!
      99% of the time I also use use self-checkout, for the same reasons that you do!

      Seriously – I end up doing the transaction slower than the cashiers, because I know what I am looking for and the cashiers just scanscanscan. By using self-checout, I can make sure that I am getting the deal I am counting on without pissing off the cashier! And since I REALLY love the people at my “main store”, the last thing I want to do is make them angry by saying “oh wait – did that deal come off….??”

      I just feel like there is SO much free stuff to be had by working the deals without being morally ambigous….and I have always said: My integrity is worth more than an extra 50 cents off!

    • lena says

      Hi Mindi, thank you very much for the post. I too do the self checkout for the same reasons. And my self checkout (Bustleton and Redlion Acme) does not accept coupons, so I give them to the cashier anyway.

      I have just been accused of using illegitimate coupons by some rude teenage cashier at my local cvs. My thought is even if I did use illegitimate coupons, how was I supposed to know, that they were not real! I sure did’t use those “facebook” fradulent colgate coupons, but that’s because I heard they were fraud before I printed them.

      And that scanning and printing thing and putting wrong coupons in slots is just crazy.

      I don’t know why someone would want to fraud the stores, if they already getting most of the stuff free. If you didn’t get something free this week, you’ll get it during next sale, what’s the big deal!

  14. lena says

    And by the way, Mindi, if you feel comfortable telling me, what ACME do you go to? If we go to the same one I would love to meet you! :)

  15. says

    Great post!

    I have also heard from others that they find the youngest cashiers ( high schoolers ) and use expired coupons.

    I tried to explain the same thing to them. When you use expired coupons, the store is not getting reimbursed…it is stealing.

    Instead, take those expired coupons ( I clean out monthly ) and donate to the troops overseas. They can use their expired coupons for months after…and greatly appreciate our coupons since they do not have access to them regularly.

  16. Tavita says

    I recently had to tell a friend that making a whole bunch of $5 off Huggies coupons was wrong. Thankfully, she was a newbie and didn’t know that. Another woman recently told me that at a certain store in NY, she finds clueless cashiers who just type in the amounts of the coupons, regardless of how many coupons she has or if they are even for the same products she purchased. she saves crazy money each week, laughs about it and just feels so good about herself.

    I feel that above all, we are accountable to God. Even if you pass under the radar here, heaven still caught all the wrongdoing. It is always far easier and faster to be dishonest, but there’s nothing like a clear conscience.

  17. Joe says

    I’m honest about coupons. What about the stores? The coupon is a contract. I’ve had several instances where the managers would invent ad hoc rules to avoid redemption– this is a particular problem with rebates. Escalating the issue often solves the problem (“OOops we got caught! Let’s pacify this one before the law see what we’re up to), but most people won’t bother.

    Yes, Tavita let’s ALL be “accountable to God”… including companies whose only moral code seems to be “profit by any means necessary.”

  18. Adrienne says

    I stumbled onto this website for the first time today. I really like it although I’m not a mom (and don’t ever want to be). Thanks for the article. I really enjoyed it.

  19. Manisha says

    I just don’t want people abusing coupons because it makes those of us who are honest seem/feel/look dishonest. I’m not hoping to start any theological debates, but this has less to do with God and more to do with just upholding the law. Whether or not God approves of your life is up to Her (or Him?). I just want to be left alone when I’m doing the right thing.

  20. says

    Our Wal-Marts make it impossible to use coupons in the self-checkout lanes. Anything over $1 won’t scan, and if the coupon is over the price of the item it wont’ go through (think Axe deal). It’s much easier to go to one of the lanes that aren’t busy. I will usually do 1 transaction there at a time, because we have 2 within 6 miles and I can go pretty often. Being in a small town we only have the WM and a few other expensive smaller stores, and as much as I dislike them we end up at WM most of the time. Great article!

  21. says

    Hi Mindi,

    I enjoyed your post and shared it with my readers today. I had started a small series yesterday about couponing and your post fit in beautifully. I sort of drug up the rear with some info in my post today. Thanks for setting a good example as a couponer and helping teach others the ropes.


  22. Midge says

    I found this site today because I feel as though I have bought a couple of fraudulent coupons. I now know that the Buy 1 Get 1 Free Coke coupons have been photocopied. I purchased 20 of these and have used 12. I didn’t know they were fake until the other day when at Walmart (where I’ve never used these) the cashiers now have to call someone with a walkie-talkie to come over and check all coupons that are blank on the back..i.e. internet coupons. She said you can just tell if it was printed from a computer or scanned on a color COPIER! I have a huge binder with all of my coupons neatly organized thanks to Mr’s A’s lovely sheets! Anyway, all of my coupons were good. I said, “what do you think about this one?” and showed her the Diet Coke coupon and she said, that is “VERY VERY IFFY” and I probably would decline it. She then asked the cashier to try and scan it and it WOULD NOT SCAN. Which is what had been happening each time I used them at my local CVS or Walgreens since they’d been having sales recently!!!! I left a coupon there so they could show the other cashiers what to look for. I am going to go to CVS and Walgreens and try to somehow pay them back for all the free soda I feel I have gotten when I shouldn’t. I cannot tell you have horrible it feels. Now I am questioning my free bags of Purina dog food coupons which I bought 6 of them for up to 37.5 lbs. I go to Petsmart once a week, get a bag and take it to the local shelter. But now I don’t know if they’re legitimate or not. My local shelter is so happy to get this food and I am so conflicted. I feel sick to my stomach and about to break out into tears and I’m a tough broad. I don’t cry or show any emotions. I’ve been using my dog food coupons and even other coupons and donating the foods to my animal shelter and my local food bank as well as stopping when people have signs and handing them a bag of groceries. I am trying to help people as well as keep myself afloat and now I just don’t know. Who can I ask about these Purina coupons? They scanned at Petsmart, she didn’t manually have to do anything. So does that mean they’re good? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks so much.

  23. Anon says

    I have been checking out coupon etiquettes and ethics so that I do not unknowingly do something illegal or simply wrong. On the same line I see these kinds of deals these days wherein you just sign up for some trial offer and cancel it and end up getting gift card. If I do the offer only with the gift card in mind isn’t it wrong? And the wording of the post like “make sure to cancel it within your trial period” is surely with no intention of keeping it or giving it a chance. Is this incorrect? I agree that the company’s know about it but from our conscience isn’t it wrong?

    • says

      This is fraud. It is offer fraud. I have been working in the freebie business doing referral versions of these for over a year and it is against the terms of service of the offer to talk about canceling or complete it only with the intention of getting the free item and canceling. I actually posted to comments on that very blog for that deal. She didn’t post one of them, the other is there. Someone else posted anonymously and was bring the same point as I was. This is wrong at all the freebie trading forums I work at and through all of the freebie sites that offer these advertisers offers. This particular one is directly from the advertiser so the ethics may not be questionable for it because the advertiser knows what they are doing, but on an incentive site like you will see mentioned on my blog it is very very wrong and fraudulent. The advertisers are paying the sites for legitimate fresh leads. Think about it this way. Do any of you have advertisements on your blog from or gevalia or anywhere else that is paying you to refer people to them by clicking on your link? These offers are the same things. How would you like it if someone posted on their blog something like this: Try netflix for free for 7 days. If you do it through my link I will pay you $3. Make sure you cancel with xxx-xxxx on the 6th day so you don’t get charged anymore. This is fraud. Netflix isn’t paying this person to bring in leads and tell them to cancel and how to cancel. Thats what a TOS is for. Advertisers DO revoke credits of offers if there is fraud suspected. We actually just lost an advertiser completely (they don’t let us use their offers anymore) because too many people were frauding them like this.

      Sorry for the book, this just set me off because I actually responded to this same posting telling her why it was wrong.

  24. says

    Thanks for the article. I run a coupon blog too and am committed to ethics. I even decided recently to include a coupon ethics stance on my blog. In sharing the deals, I also want to enlighten couponers to the other side of the coin – the retailers and manufacturers. Thank you for your insight. I will most certainly be linking to this article on my own blog. So glad to have found another blogger taking an active stance on this. Unfortunately, even some of the sites on my own blog roll have begun to disappoint me and I may be removing their links. I think it’s time to form a coalition of “ethical coupon blogs” …. hmmm.