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Have you ever seen a coupon for $2 off a packet of powdered Kool-Aid, or $5 off one of those pine tree-shaped car air fresheners? Most people haven’t. But a Walmart in Wisconsin did – and now the woman accused of using them to get tens of thousands of dollars worth of free merchandise, could be seeing the inside of a prison cell soon.

54-year-old Rose Thomas of Milwaukee made her first court appearance yesterday, on a charge of felony theft. Police in Monona, Wisconsin – about 80 miles away from Thomas’s home – were called to a local Walmart back in November. Loss prevention officers there reported “a possible large-scale fraud” involving a frequent customer suspected of using counterfeit coupons. Over the course of nearly three months, store officials said the suspect had made nearly a dozen visits, going through the same checkout lanes with the same cashiers, buying the same products using the same coupons – all of which the Coupon Information Corporation confirmed were counterfeit.

Loss prevention provided police with photos of the suspect, and of the fake coupons that were used. Then they waited for the customer’s next visit.

And they didn’t have to wait long. Just over a week later, store officials called police to report that the suspect had returned. According to the criminal complaint, a Walmart loss prevention officer said he spotted the woman “waiting in line at register 22 with multiple shopping carts of merchandise.” He watched “as she began conducting approximately 49 separate transactions at register 22, using hundreds of counterfeit coupons, and paying approximately $169.13 for approximately $2,414.63 worth of merchandise.”

Loss prevention officers confronted the woman as she attempted to leave the store, and a police officer intervened, checking her ID and identifying her as Rose Thomas.

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“So we all know there’s no such thing as ‘unlimited 100% off whatever you want’ coupons, right?” the criminal complaint quotes a loss prevention officer as asking Thomas. “No, actually,” she’s quoted as responding. When asked where she got her high-value coupons – including the aforementioned $2 off a Kool-Aid packet and $5 off an air freshener – she’s quoted as saying that she “might” have bought them from someone in Florida, and that the values were so high because “things cost more” in Florida.

As it turned out, loss prevention said she wasn’t even using the coupons on the stated items, instead using them to get money off her purchases of various “household cleaning supplies” such as “name brand laundry detergent,” which police said was consistent with cases they’ve seen in the past involving organized retail theft. “The patterns are distinct, and the items can appear in resale marketplaces,” the criminal complaint notes.

Thomas allegedly told investigators that “Walmart told her she could” use the coupons on other items. But loss prevention reminded her that she was confronted several months earlier at another nearby Walmart, where her coupons were refused. After that incident, Thomas allegedly “came to the Monona Walmart the same night and used the coupons” – then came a dozen more times after that.

Twice, police said Thomas used self-checkout registers. The other times, she visited one of two cashiers, both of whom told police “they were instructed on how to conduct the transactions involving the counterfeit coupons.” Thomas allegedly told them to “perform multiple, small transactions back to back, rather than one large transaction.” Each transaction was for approximately $45 worth of merchandise, for which Walmart said Thomas would end up paying about $1.

Altogether, over at least 13 visits, police calculated that Thomas used 4,572 counterfeit coupons in 451 separate transactions, paying just over $1,000 for more than $22,000 worth of merchandise, for a total loss to Walmart of $21,282.

Thomas was arrested and charged with retail theft. If convicted, she could face up to ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Her next court date is in June, and she’s been banned in the meantime from doing any more shopping at any Walmart stores in the area. So as she awaits her fate, if she finds herself in need of a Kool-Aid packet or a pine tree air freshener – she’s going to have to pay full price.

Background image source: Ambrosia LaFluer

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