You’re shopping online, and suddenly, you come across a wonderful deal.
It’s a book of coupons, cheap or free, for brand-name products you already use. There’s Coke, Pepsi, Huggies, Doritos … even Listerine.
The price is half the value or less. But you’re a cautious consumer, and you wonder – is this for real?
“If you looked at eBay right now, virtually every free product coupon sold on eBay is counterfeit,” says Bud Miller, executive director of the Coupon Information Corporation.
The industry funded, nonprofit organization tracks fraud and scams from its headquarters in Alexandria, Va. (See a list of counterfeit coupons.)
“And there’s quite a few other coupons that are not for free products but at the very minimum the sale of coupons violates the terms and conditions of the coupons,” he says.
That scam has hit Alaska – specifically Sitka.
Local police first heard about counterfeits from a retailer, who was scammed for thousands of dollars.
Lieutenant Barry Allen says the coupons he’s seen are a little larger than the real ones. But otherwise, it’s very hard to know they’re fakes.
“There’s a little difference on the production shield on the front, but otherwise, they’re copying the bar codes and stuff on the backs. So the checker, unless they have a really good eye and weren’t too busy, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, because the machine’s going to register it as a coupon,” he says.
It’s unclear where else in the state has been hit by counterfeit coupons.
A quick survey of public radio news departments showed no recent reports.
And state consumer protection attorney Cindy Drinkwater says she hasn’t heard about anyplace else.
“We have not actually received any complaints from this scam. And we always encourage consumers who feel they’ve been the victim of an unfair, deceptive trade practice to file complaints or submit the information if they just want to make sure we are aware of it,” she says.
Not all coupon books are bad. Drinkwater cites sets sold in Anchorage as a fundraiser for a nonprofit group.
But she says consumers should always be careful – and beware.
“Well, we always say that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she says.
And if you are sucked into a fake, consider the consequences.
Sitka Police Lieutenant Barry Allen says the damage might be more than a one-time loss.
” If they’re going to defraud you on the coupons, what’s to keep them from using your information or credit card information for other illegal gains on their end,” Allen says.
The answer, unfortunately, is not much – unless they’re caught. Miller, of the coupon information group, says sometimes they are.
One of the biggest busts happened this summer in Arizona. Three homes were searched, three people were arrested and millions of dollars of fake coupons were seized.