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Instagram coupons

Couponing has always been something of a cat-and-mouse game. Determined couponers will find a way to “beat” the system – ethically or otherwise – until stores and coupon issuers respond by closing loopholes and changing policies in an effort to regain the upper hand. So couponers find another way to earn the advantage, and the game goes on.

But a new breed of opportunistic couponers is raising a troubling question – one that’s causing concern among coupon issuers and everyday couponers alike. Have they finally won the game, by using a foolproof “cheat” to beat the system once and for all?
 
Coupons for sale
 
At issue is the recent surge in printable coupon sellers, who are peddling their printables on social media sites like Instagram. Selling coupons online is certainly nothing new – but in this case, it’s different. The sellers aren’t offering counterfeits, photocopies or insert coupons that are not meant to be distributed outside the Sunday paper. They’re offering completely legitimate printable coupons with unique ID’s – hundreds or thousands at a time.

“We spend a lot of time focusing on counterfeit coupons,” said Brand Technologies president Jane Beauchamp, who works on behalf of a number of coupon issuers and retailers. “But the pace at which print-at-home sellers are opening up shop on social media, it’s snowballing into quite a large problem.”

They’re legitimate coupons, though – so what’s the problem?

Well, gone are the days when you’d have to settle for just two unique coupon prints from your lone desktop computer. Nowadays, most households have multiple devices – laptops, tablets and mobile phones – that can print coupons. That means you can easily get four, eight, a dozen, or more unique prints if there’s a particularly good coupon available. So score one for couponers in the cat-and-mouse game.

But for some, even two prints from each device isn’t enough. They’ve devised ways to use separate user accounts, incognito browsers, virtual machines, dynamic IP addresses, PDF printers and other methods to get around print limits and generate as many printable coupons with unique ID’s as they’d like, rapidly and automatically.

It’s possible then, for a single seller to max out the number of available prints all by themselves, preventing other couponers from getting their own prints – unless they buy them from that seller. Unlike the sale of insert coupons, which essentially redistributes coupons that might otherwise go unused, selling printables takes coupons out of circulation that everyday couponers might otherwise have been able to print for themselves. It’s as if a ticket scalper bought every seat in the house the moment the box office opened, and the only way for you to get in, was to pay their price.
 
Stopping the sellers
 
Judging by the growing number of printable sellers out there, the industry appears unable to put a quick stop to the practice. Some printable providers, like RevTrax, say they’re certainly trying. “RevTrax has made it a priority to reach out to buyers and sellers on this issue and shut down the business activities of bad actors selling our coupons,” RevTrax co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Seth Sarelson told Coupons in the News. “We work through the social media platforms, PayPal and others, including the Coupon Information Corporation.”

Even so, sellers can be hard to pin down. “RevTrax and Coupons.com found me,” one Instagram coupon seller recently told her followers – before promptly setting up a new account and getting right back to business.

And notwithstanding its efforts to stop the practice, the industry may actually have helped to enable the problem, by making printable coupons so much easier to print.

The reason you’re now able to print coupons from so many more devices, is because most of the major printable coupon providers have moved away from requiring downloadable plugins that track the number of coupons you’ve printed, and imprint identifying information on the coupons themselves. In the past, this made it easy for coupon providers to go after those who were misusing, photocopying or selling printable coupons – they could just block that user’s computer from printing any more.

But many printable providers have since moved to PDF-based prints, with no plugin required. That means sellers can simply save coupons as PDF files, without having to “print” at all – they can simply send them as email attachments to willing buyers. And while the coupons are still imprinted with identifying information, the use of virtual machines and dynamic IP addresses makes them difficult, if not impossible, to trace to a single seller.

Coupons.com parent company Quotient Technology historically has been aggressive in trying to prevent printable coupon users from getting more than their share, or allowing others to do so. “Quotient takes any violation of our terms of service seriously and continues to use all available legal recourses against any violators,” CEO Steven Boal told Coupons in the News. His company has been known to send cease-and-desist orders to printable coupon sellers, threatening to block them from printing any more if they didn’t comply. The company even once sued a man who “hacked” their printing plugin after downloading it to his computer, in order to remove the print limits.

Boal says Coupons.com’s new method of requiring a phone number before printing, is meant to prevent users from getting unlimited coupon prints. “Our new printing system, called PrintID, requires a user’s phone number for authentication and employs sophisticated technology on the back end that hinders a consumer’s ability to gain access to more coupons than intended,” he said. PrintID works only when you provide a real, physical mobile phone number for verification, so it can’t be fooled by temporary “burner” phone numbers. “We have on many occasions used PrintID to successfully identify individuals attempting to use coupons from our network in a way that violates our terms of service, which in bold letters state that we prohibit sale, auction, alteration, duplication, transfer, distribution or any commercial use of our coupons,” Boal added.
 
A losing battle?
 
And yet printables from Coupons.com and other providers are still showing up for sale in large numbers, suggesting that determined sellers are managing to stay one step ahead of the systems that are in place to stop them.

Even so, Boal contends that the sale of printable coupons is not as big a problem as some are making it out to be. “We believe that the security around our platform provides lower risk of fraud than offline promotions,” he said. “And for the industry overall, this is an infinitesimally small problem.”

Others, like Beauchamp, beg to differ. “It’s simply staggering to see the numbers,” she said. One seller that her company recently monitored had a total of 35,736 sets of 12 coupons available for sale. “That’s a grand total of 428,832 coupons, with an approximate face value amount of $576,000,” Beauchamp said. “Now multiply those numbers by the hundreds of other sellers that are selling legitimate print-at-home coupons on a daily basis.”

“On any given week, a single seller is removing some 400,000 printables from the system. This is a growing, emerging, and alarming problem – not an infinitesimal one,” coupon blogger and nationally-syndicated columnist Jill Cataldo told Coupons in the News. She recently wrote on her website about the sale of printable coupons, warning readers not to get caught up in the practice. “You’re effectively paying a ‘ransom’ for printable coupons that are freely available to you,” she wrote. “Do not encourage the resellers to continue their activity by financially supporting their actions.”

And there’s more to it than just the effect on your ability to access printables before the sellers print them all. According to Inmar, the overall redemption rate for printable coupons last year was just 8% – which means 92% of the coupons available to print, we never get around to using. And manufacturers know to budget for that.

But those who pay for coupons are presumably more inclined to actually use them. So if manufacturers start seeing a spike in redemptions, as more coupons end up in the hands of fewer consumers, they may be less inclined to make lucrative offers. They also pay the printable providers for every coupon that’s printed. So if more coupons are routinely reaching their print limits, more coupon campaigns could end up going overbudget – affecting manufacturers’ ability to offer as many printable coupons in the future.

Futher complicating matters is a potential conflict of interest among the printable providers. In accepting those per-print fees, they could end up benefiting financially from the very practice they say they’re trying to stop – at the manufacturers’ expense.
 
Who it helps – and hurts
 
In the end, printable coupon sales benefit no one more than the sellers themselves. “Nothing good can come from this, except the lining of the sellers’ PayPal accounts with lots of money,” Beauchamp said. “Ultimately, the end result will be the reduction of coupon budgets and promotions in the future. It’s time that the leaders of the coupon industry band together to thwart the folks that are bucking the systems that have been put into place.”

Sarelson agrees that, despite the difficulties in stopping the sellers, it’s imperative to keep up the fight. “We believe that every vendor in the space has an obligation to work hard to mitigate the threat posed by fraud, misuse and other illegal coupon activities,” he said.

Otherwise, if coupon sellers keep finding ways to charge you for free coupons, and manufacturers end up tightening their promotional budgets – saving money could end up getting a whole lot more expensive.

4 Comments

  1. 428,832 coupons is almost 300 coupons an hour 24/7. That does not seem very realistic to me.

  2. This is really sad that people just resort to such actions.

  3. Honest Couponer says:

    Simply outstanding article! Well-researched and covers all the angles! Indeed, why would coupons.com even care about this issue, regardless of whether they are being paid on a per-clip or per-redemption basis from the Manufacturer? They stand to gain either way!!! And then they downplay it by saying it is infinitesimal!? Shame on them! The day is coming when a company releases a print-at-home coupon and it maxes out its distribution limits within hours. The scalper analogy is spot on! Keep up the good work!

  4. “””One seller that her company recently monitored had a total of 35,736 sets of 12 coupons available for sale. “That’s a grand total of 428,832 coupons, with an approximate face value amount of $576,000″””

    The question is, is this seller really printing ALL of them, or are they listing them and printing as they sell? I know “hot” coupons disappear, but many stay online for what seems, forever.

    To print that many coupons becomes very time consuming, no matter how you look at it. If the seller is so sophisticated to have written a program that fully automates it, they are wasting their real talent playing with coupons.

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