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So will Robin Ramirez, Amiko Fountain and Marilyn Johnson be going to see Queenpins this weekend?

The story of the three women’s 2012 arrests for coupon fraud is back in the news, as the major motion picture they inspired is set to open in theaters this Friday. Queenpins tells a comedic story of two down-on-their-luck Phoenix women who discover their path to prosperity by concocting a $40 million counterfeit coupon scheme that all comes crashing down when they get caught.

You can’t make this stuff up – and the filmmakers didn’t have to. While the characters in Queenpins are fictional, the crime they came up with is the real deal. Ramirez, Fountain and Johnson were charged and convicted for running their very own $40 million counterfeit coupon scheme, for which they’re still paying the price – and may well be for the rest of their lives.

Ramirez’s case was back before a judge as recently as July, when her probation officer reported she was falling behind on her share of the nearly $1.3 million in restitution payments she and her cohorts were ordered to pay. So even though the events of nearly a decade ago seem like old news to the rest of us, it’s something the culprits continue to live with.

The story actually began more than a decade ago, when the women started selling their coupons online. Visitors to the Savvy Shopper Site website could buy high-value coupons offering free items like detergent, diapers, pet food and more, for pennies on the dollar. Preferred customers could get even better deals on better coupons.

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But the coupons were high-quality counterfeits. The Coupon Information Corporation got wind of the scheme, and brought it to the attention of investigators, which is how it eventually landed on the desk of Phoenix Police Sergeant David Lake.

“I went to the detectives and I said, we have what appears to be a large multimillion-dollar, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars, theft affecting over 240 victims,” the now-retired Lake told Coupons in the News. “But nobody really thought it was a big deal, because, you know, it’s coupons.”

But Lake determinedly led his team in pursuing the case. He described “digging through trash cans,” conducting surveillance, and ultimately “kicking in the doors” of the three women’s homes, where they found a treasure trove of evidence – coupons, cash, guns, along with what they later discovered was an airplane hangar filled with sports cars, a fully decked-out RV and a 40-foot speedboat. It appeared the women were making so much money, they weren’t even sure how to spend it all.

The trio’s many customers never faced charges – but they might have. “Had the system been better then,” Lake said, “we could have arrested probably another 50 people at least, who were buying hundreds of these coupons at a time and saying, ‘I know they’re fake, but they work great’.”

All three women were arrested and charged with forgery, fraud and counterfeiting. Ramirez, the ringleader, was the only one sentenced to prison time – two years – while her counterparts got probation. But all were ordered to pay nearly $1.3 million in restitution to Procter & Gamble, just one of the many manufacturers whose coupons they counterfeited and sold.

Now that they’ve done their time and are working to pay off their debt, the women appear to be trying to put the incident behind them. Fountain and Johnson both still live and work in the Phoenix area, in professions that have nothing to do with coupons. Neither of them responded to requests for comment about their case, and how or whether they have managed to move on from it.

Ramirez, too, declined to respond to requests for comment. But court records indicate that she has not quite been able to put this case behind her. Her term of probation was recently extended for another five years, after she fell more than $4,000 behind in her restitution payments. At $300 a month, even if she stays current in her payments, it will take more than 120 years to pay off her share of the restitution order.

And the women won’t be getting any windfall from Queenpins. Not only does Arizona state law forbid convicted criminals from profiting by selling their story, but writer-directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly have emphasized that their story is an entirely fictional version of the real thing. “None of the characters are based on the real individuals involved,” Gaudet told Coupons in the News. “Some movies are ‘based on’ true stories, some movies are ‘inspired by’ true stories. This is much more ‘inspired’… So we don’t really know anything about the real players and we kind of didn’t want to. We just wanted to create our own characters.”

The only real-life individual you could say was better off after the case than before, is the man who cracked the case. “Coupons wasn’t even the biggest, most interesting case I did. But it’s funny that it’s gotten so much attention,” Lake said. After he retired from the force, he took what he had learned from this case and others like it to found the Center on Shadow Economics, which works to mitigate the economic impact of black market crimes – like counterfeit couponing. “I try to work with police chiefs, at the state and local level, to come up with ways of explaining how important protecting our business infrastructure is,” he said.

He also explained the counterfeit coupon case to Gaudet and Pullapilly, who sought him out after their curiosity was piqued when they first read about the crime. “Aron and I were immediately drawn to the story and had to understand it more,” Pullapilly said. “It all sounded so unbelievable and over the top, and we knew the story had the makings for a great comedy.”

So while the women may not be thrilled to see their pasts dredged up and played for laughs on the big screen, Lake is hopeful that moviegoers won’t come away with the wrong idea about creating or using counterfeit coupons. “We don’t want people to think it’s funny. We don’t want people to think they can do this,” he said. The filmmakers are “not trying to hurt anybody, or glorify the crime, they’re just trying to make a funny story.” But, he cautioned, “we can’t say that it doesn’t matter that a person is only selling coupons when we look at the amount of economic damage that does.”

Counterfeiters like the three Phoenix women, and the many customers who bought coupons from them, are fully aware that what they’re doing is wrong, Lake believes. “And that’s why they make excuses,” he said. “That’s why they say ‘Robin Hood,’ that’s why they say ‘the fat cats on Wall Street deserve it,’ that’s why they say ‘these corporations are evil.’ Not because they believe any of that, but so they don’t feel guilty about their own actions.” His message to coupon wrongdoers is, “yes, you got a good deal. But can you live with what you did?”

Ramirez, Fountain and Johnson are now having to live with what they did. And they get a monthly reminder every time they make their latest restitution payment. Now, with their story back in the spotlight, there’s no escaping it, even nearly ten years later. So they may be the first ones to tell you that coupon crime may make for a great Hollywood comedy – but in real life, it’s no laughing matter.

Image source: STXfilms

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