(Update: All three defendants were ultimately sentenced to 50 hours each of community service and ordered to pay restitution. Dalton’s sum was $614.92, Bailey’s was $626.95 and Heath, the cashier, was ordered to pay back a total of $2,267.97.)
Some enterprising coupon counterfeiters have apparently learned that it doesn’t matter if your coupons look real – if you get a cashier to help you out, you can pass the most fake-looking counterfeits and still succeed in scamming your store out of thousands of dollars.
They’ve also learned that it’s a lot easier to mass-produce printable store coupons than it is to mess around trying to make manufacturer’s coupons.
Police in West Melbourne, Florida say that’s what happened at a local Publix supermarket. They say 31-year-old Jennifer Bailey and her mother, 50-year-old Debbie Dalton, created crude counterfeit coupons at home, and paid their cashier, 28-year-old Matthew Heath, 20 bucks per transaction to look the other way. Heath, police say, threw away the coupons at the end of each shift, against store policy.
And some of their “coupons” were too-good-to-be-true discounts like $5 off a fresh produce purchase. It didn’t really matter if the coupons were believable, since Heath would allegedly accept them anyway.
Plus, a good number of the coupons were competitor coupons, from Target and Winn-Dixie. Some were legit, though most others were photocopied, and many were given artificially inflated face values cut-and-pasted on top of the original value.
The scam apparently went on for several months. Once the store’s suspicions were raised, police began investigating and observed Bailey shopping on two occasions in July. The first time, according to the arrest affidavit, she entered the store with three small children in tow, and “took a large quantity of groceries off the shelves and placed them in her shopping cart.” Her cart was so full, she had to get a second one just for her kids.
When she was finished, police say, she went up to a closed cash register, which Heath then opened just for her. A later examination of the transaction showed that he allegedly entered $573.92 worth of competitor coupons, and $52.75 in manufacturer’s coupons. Police say Bailey also bought $225 worth of gift cards, and thanks to a massive amount of overage, she ended up owing just $20.87. Heath then “handed Bailey her receipt,” according to the arrest affidavit, “and she gave the receipt back to Heath with $20 hidden under the receipt.”
Three days later, police say, the same thing happened. This time, they say they observed Heath throwing away Bailey’s receipt and all of her coupons, after which she allegedly gave him another $20.
An officer pulled Bailey over as she left the parking lot, and he reports that she admitted to the entire scheme. “An agreement was made between Heath and the women that he would take all the coupons they would give him in exchange for $20 every transaction,” the arrest affidavit states. The women would allegedly buy gift cards to absorb any overage and avoid having a zero or less-than-zero balance, so as not to raise suspicions with loss prevention.
A scourge of competitor coupon photocopying and cut-and-paste manipulating led Publix to clamp down on its competitor coupon policy recently. Most locations that consider Target a competitor accept just one like Target coupon per transaction now. That didn’t appear to be a problem in this case since, again, Heath was allegedly in on the scam. He would be able to manually enter the coupons as competitor coupons, without even having to scan them or worry about whether they “beeped” – or whether they were complete phonies.
Oh, but the women weren’t all bad – police say they donated some of their loot to a local church and food pantry. How nice of them. Proof that “but I donate many of my purchases!” is not an excuse for inconsiderate – or criminal – couponing.
In all, police estimate they made off with many thousands of dollars worth of groceries before they were caught – $1,119.99 in the two observed transactions alone.
Bailey, Dalton and Heath have been arrested and face felony charges of grand theft and fraud. And for those who follow the rules and use coupons at Publix legitimately, they haven’t changed their competitor coupon policy. Yet.
Image source: Josh Hallett