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There have been enough stories of coupon fraudsters getting arrested, fined and thrown in jail for anyone considering it to know that misusing coupons doesn’t pay off.

Except for the times that it does.

Don’t tell the coupon police, but the real-life police sometimes shrug it off, retailers and coupon issuers decide it’s not worth the trouble pursuing a case, and scammers end up getting a slap on the wrist – if that.

And that’s the discouraging dark side of the fight against coupon fraud.

Most cases that aren’t pursued or prosecuted never come to light. But one involving a trio of alleged coupon abusers at a Meijer in suburban Milwaukee just did.

According to a police incident report, shortly after midnight on Saturday, May 19th, a manager at a Meijer in Oak Creek, Wisconsin called police, reporting that a group of shoppers went to a self-checkout station and “were using fake coupons to get hundreds of dollars off… three carts full of merchandise”.

When the self-checkout register prompted a clerk to offer assistance, the shoppers “became argumentative with the clerk”. They then departed the store in a huff, leaving behind everything they had planned to purchase.

After Meijer’s call, police pursued the suspects and managed to track down three of them traveling in one vehicle. The suspects, a 44-year-old man and two women aged 34 and 32, “admitted being at Meijer, but denied attempting any type of fraud,” the police report reads.

So who to believe? The store or the suspects?

The Meijer manager did some investigating of his own while police were in pursuit. When police called him back, he had an updated explanation about what actually went down.

“After looking further into it,” the police report reads, store staffers “believed the subjects found a loophole in the self-checkout lanes”. The coupons “were not fake, they were from magazines or the newspaper”, but “the subjects were attempting to purchase one item and use multiple coupons to obtain that item for free”.

As any couponer knows, you can only use one manufacturer’s coupon per item. In this case, the suspects were simply scanning multiples of the same coupons over and over again, watching their total go down until they had scanned enough coupons to get the corresponding items for free – and the register was somehow allowing this.

Could the couponers have been misguided? Naive? Ignorant about how coupons work? No matter, since “ignorance of the law,” as they say, “is no excuse”. And the fine print on most manufacturer’s coupons spells it out pretty clearly: “Only one coupon per purchase of product specified… any other use constitutes fraud”.

So what did the Meijer store manager do about this clear-cut case of coupon fraud? “Staff were unable to identify any fraud,” the police report concludes.

Wait, what?

“Meijer wanted the subjects warned about their activities”. So the “subjects were advised of store policy on coupons” and were “warned and released”.

The manager justified his decision by pointing out that, since the suspects had left before completing their purchase, Meijer had “recovered all of the property the subjects were attempting to leave with”. So no harm, no foul.

But had these couponers visited the store in the past? Had they “naively” scanned stacks of the same coupons over and over again to get all of their purchases for free before they were caught this time? Had they “innocently” gone shopping after midnight, pushing three cartloads of merchandise to a self-checkout with a known “loophole”, at any other Meijer locations before? Had they “become argumentative” when notified of any other “accidental” couponing slip-ups they may have committed? Did Meijer check to see whether any of the shoppers had entered their loyalty ID numbers, then pull their transaction logs for signs of any previous suspicious couponing activity?

Meijer isn’t saying. “We do not publicly discuss criminal/security manners,” spokesman Frank Guglielmi told Coupons in the News.

The result of this case is likely to be especially disappointing to Meijer couponers who play by the rules, since Meijer recently unveiled one of the strictest new coupon policies of any grocery retailer. Early last month, it revised its policy for the first time in six years. Two of the most notable changes state that coupons valued at more than $5 cannot be redeemed at self-checkout, and shoppers are limited to using just two identical coupons in a transaction – far fewer than any other major retailer – and there’s no breaking up purchases into multiple transactions to get around the rule.

And many Meijer shoppers are still steamed about that. Couponers tend not to take kindly to any coupon policy change, but this one seems particularly galling, since customers are still complaining about it nearly two months later.

“What a stupid policy,” one shopper grumbled on Meijer’s Facebook page just last week. “From now on I will do my grocery shopping at Kroger who doesn’t have such stupid rules.”

“As a family of 14… your new coupon policy of only 2 coupons per order has me feeling less than valued as a customer,” another shopper complained. “I went next door to Walmart, and was told that they… would gladly accept all of the coupons in one transaction… and they didn’t treat me like an annoyance.”

While initially explaining that the policy change was meant to prevent shelf-clearing and help keep popular items in stock, Meijer lately has taken to telling customers that “limiting to 2 identical coupons per transaction also reduces Meijer’s exposure to fraudulently created coupons, which helps keep our prices low.”

But who needs to use fraudulent coupons, or worry about the dollar-value limit of coupons at self-checkout, when you can apparently use perfectly legitimate, lower-value coupons over and over again, regardless of that pesky “two like coupons” rule that everyone else has to follow?

And that’s not even “fraud”, according to one Meijer manager.

Meijer is doing what all retailers have to do these days, by issuing detailed directives to protect themselves against wrongdoers. But that can be tough to pull off, when loyal customers feel betrayed and devalued, while fraudsters are told what they’re doing isn’t even fraudulent.

The only reason the incident at Meijer this month became known at all, was because the driver of the car that was pulled over was issued a citation for driving with a suspended license, so the incident report became part of the public record. Otherwise, the report on this incident may never have seen the light of day. And there’s no way of knowing how many other incidents just like it happen every day at stores across the country, where fraudsters who play dumb either get off with a warning, or get away with it altogether.

But if you’re just couponing to save some money and feed your family, and not to see what you can get away with, try to be accepting of today’s increasingly restrictive new coupon policies. They’re helping to prevent coupon fraud, after all.

Image source: Meijer

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