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Many who buy and sell counterfeit coupons like to think it’s a victimless crime. Or that authorities have better things to do than hunt down harmless coupon Moms. Or that their couponing community is a tight-knit group that will never spill any secrets about their illicit behavior. Or that the potential consequences if caught just aren’t that severe.

But try asking Lori Ann and Pacifico Talens of Virginia Beach, Virginia if they agree with any of those assumptions. Two days after her husband pleaded guilty to mail fraud for helping to run her multimillion-dollar counterfeit coupon business, Lori Ann Talens pleaded guilty yesterday to mail fraud, wire fraud and health care fraud – and now faces a maximum penalty of 50 years behind bars, in addition to potentially having to forfeit all of her cash and property to repay her victims more than $31 million.

Federal prosecutors revealed details of how the scheme operated, and ultimately unraveled, when they reached a plea deal with Pacifico Talens earlier this week. From at least April 2017 through May 2020, they said Lori Ann Talens used her home computer to create templates for more than 13,000 different counterfeit coupons for at least 132 different brands, apparently using her background as the onetime owner of a professional printing company to design and print them. She would then peddle the high-value fraudulent coupons on social media, identifying interested individuals in Facebook groups, then inviting them to make a deal on the private, encrypted messaging app Telegram, using the name “MasterChef.”

And then a potential customer ratted her out.

In 2017, court documents state that “an individual who is a coupon enthusiast” told the fraud-fighting Coupon Information Corporation about “MasterChef,” and agreed to make some undercover coupon buys. Federal investigators got involved, and followed the trail to the Talens’ home, where they found coupon-creating equipment, about $1 million worth of counterfeit coupons waiting to be sold, and evidence that the scheme had caused retailers and manufacturers nearly $32 million in losses, which prosecutors described as “a conservative calculation of this case’s financial impact.”

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“Counterfeiting coupons harms the entire retail industry and causes financial loss to consumers, businesses, and the economy,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Raj Parekh said in a statement. “As this case demonstrates, those who use illegal get-rich-quick schemes to deceive others will be brought to justice.”

The Talens are due to be sentenced in August. Prosecutors have identified assets including nearly $25,000 in cash, more than $700,000 worth of cryptocurrency, as well as the couple’s Virginia Beach home, all of which are subject to forfeiture to help pay the fines and restitution that will be determined at sentencing. In addition, Pacifico Talens faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, after admitting to helping his wife mail coupon shipments to buyers. And Lori Ann Talens faces up to 50 years in prison, for selling and mailing the coupons, as well as claiming Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, without disclosing the considerable income that would have made her ineligible for those programs.

The penalties for coupon fraud “can be life-changing; long prison terms, probation, restitution, and other financial penalties are not unusual,” Coupon Information Corporation Executive Director Bud Miller said in a statement. “It would be wise for coupon counterfeiters to immediately cease their illegal activities. The temporary profits are not worth putting their homes, freedom, and families at risk.”

It’s worth reiterating that four full years elapsed from the time the tipster contacted authorities, to the time the Talens were formally charged. They may have thought they were evading detection all that time, pulling off the perfect coupon crime, when in reality, investigators were methodically building a solid case against them. So getting away with coupon fraud for a good long while, doesn’t make anyone home free.

It’s also worth noting that investigators who seized the Talens’ equipment and property now possess all of their business records, including, quite likely, the names and addresses of those who purchased counterfeit coupons from them. “Coupon purchasers should be aware that they are providing their personal information to individuals or organizations that are likely criminal enterprises and may open themselves to other criminal schemes,” Miller warned.

So is losing your life savings, your home, your good name, and potentially spending decades behind bars worth it, just to get some free grocery items with fake coupons? Two Virginia residents may end up having a very long time to sit and consider that very question.

Image source: cpyles

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