The Coupon Lady: 'Extreme Couponing' courts controversy

The third season of TLC’s Extreme Couponing begins airing May 28 at 10 p.m.


Honestly, after becoming frustrated with the show, I haven’t even watched all of the second season. However, I feel I should update my readers about a few of its controversies.

TLC aired the pilot in De­cember 2010 to mixed reactions. Completely unaware of the show, I had been following the blogs and Web sites of two of the pilot participants for nearly a year and a half before the pilot aired. I had contacted both with questions through blogging and e-mails on several occasions. They were very kind and more than willing to share tips with me and stressed good manners, teaching responsibly and giving back to the community.

Unlike the audience, who saw only their TV appearance, I knew enough about them to realize that they had been edited in a way that was negative and unflattering. One instance involved placing products on a shelf and making the person look as though he was taking everything when he had actually special-ordered cases in advance to ensure that others could take advantage of the sale. However, being considerate doesn’t make for “extreme” TV, does it?

When TLC announced that Extreme Couponing was being picked up for a full season in 2011, many coupon enthusiasts, including me, hoped that this would be an opportunity for the show to correct some of the negativity and misconceptions about couponers that resulted from the pilot. The first season premiered April 6, 2011, and featured two episodes. After the first episode, many couponers like myself were up in arms.

The episode showed a lady using coupons in what appeared to be a fraudulent manner. She used a method of fraud called decoding. Without being too specific, it is a way to use coupons meant for one item to buy items for which the coupons were not intended. An example of decoding would be using a high-value coupon for a six-pack of yogurt to purchase a single container. Eventually, she admitted to decoding in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

During this incident, TLC released a statement to Entertainment Weekly: “We have received a strong response to the premiere and are listening to and reading the various comments around the show – as with all programs, we appreciate the feedback. While the series documents extreme couponing strategies, we take any concerns about specific tactics seriously and are looking into the situation.”

Since that statement, TLC has had no comment regarding any fraud allegation stemming from the program. Also since then, there have been two confirmed cases of counterfeit coupons being used by two different participants. Most recently, in the Dec. 27 Extreme Couponing: All Stars episode, shopper Chris Duff used 200 counterfeit Tide coupons to illegally obtain nearly $1,200 in merchandise.

Jill Cataldo, a nationally syndicated coupon columnist, broke the story in March. She explains that the coupons show a logo of an Illinois retailer that offers a booklet of Tide coupons when you purchase a washing machine. There are four coupons in each book, so Duff would have had to buy 50 machines to get that many coupons. Even if Duff, who lives in Pennsylvania, somehow managed to get the coupons from an employee, the legitimate booklets contained holograms embedded within the coupon. A screen shot of the coupons that Duff used during the episode showed coupons without holograms or expiration dates. P&G confirmed that these coupons were counterfeit.

The second case of fraud is Joel, a 16-year-old, who purchased 34 12-packs of Quilted Northern toilet paper with fraudulent coupons. His episode aired Oct. 26.

With all the controversy, you’d think that TLC might consider changing the show’s format for Season 3. However, in the March 6 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Matt Sharp, the executive producer of TLC’s Extreme Couponing, said in an e-mail that the show does not plan any changes.

Extreme Couponing continues to document real people and their extreme couponing methods. It’s up to each of the couponers to follow store policy and coupon rules,” Sharp wrote.