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The Coupon Lady: Counterfeit coupon scheme

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For the past few years, I’ve taken a hard stance against purchasing coupons through eBay or coupon clipping services.

One of my reasons against purchasing coupons online is that you have no way of knowing if your coupon is a legitimate copy. This is why I won’t buy coupons online.

In July 2012, Phoenix news channel Fox 10 reported that three women had been arrested after an investigation of coupon fraud. Phoenix police arrested 40-year-old Robin Ramirez, 42-year-old Amiko Fountain and54-year-old Marilyn Johnson after an eight-week investigation.

The investigation began when companies began noticing large amounts of high-quality fake coupons being redeemed by grocers across the nation. The companies contacted the Coupon Information Corp. and hired a private investigator to locate the source of the high-quality fakes.

According to news reports, the investigator discovered that they were coming primarily from a coupon clipping Web site called Savvy Shopper Site. The company was headed by Ramirez, and she was assisted by Fountain and Johnson.

On the Web site, the ladies sold unauthorized copies of real coupons. These fakes were bought overseas and then shipped to Phoenix. The ladies would sell the counterfeits on their Web site for up to 50 percent of the value of the item. The shopper would then redeem the fake coupon with the retailer. Because it was a good-quality fake, the coupons would be accepted at the register, but then would not match the manufacturer’s printings once the grocery stores sent the coupons to the manufacturer. This would make the manufacturers suffer heavy losses.

During the July arrest, police seized at least $25 million in fraudulent coupons along with nearly $2 million worth of assets that included vehicles, guns, a speedboat and other assets.

According to a report by Arizona television station CBS 5, Fountain and Johnson’s families claimed that the two ladies had no knowledge that the coupons were fraudulent. Johnson was a retired special needs teacher and Fountain was a chiropractor. They were hired by Ramirez to pack coupons once or twice a week in exchange for free coupons. They claimed that Ramirez got her coupons from a nonprofit organization.

CBS 5 spoke to the lead investigator, Sgt. David Lake, about the case. In the interview, Lake explained that the majority of orders were not for one or two of the item, it was multiple copies of each coupon. That brought in a lot of money to the operation. He also said that while the operation cost retailers and manufacturers a lot of money, it also had an impact on the national economy.

“When we did our study, $50,000 in losses equates to one job,” he said.

The three women aren’t the only people who could face jail time. Any people who knowingly used the fake coupons committed a felony, so frequent customers could face jail time or fines.

The three suspects faced multiple charges from both federal and local courts, including operating an illegal enterprise, forgery, money laundering and counterfeiting. Fountain and Johnson were both sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading guilty to a single count of counterfeiting. Ramirez pleaded guilty to illegal control of an enterprise, counterfeiting and fraud. She was sentenced to two years in prison, with credit for 287 days’ served, and seven years of supervised probation. She also was ordered to pay restitution of up to $5 million.

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