Proper Couponing 101

Coupons are front and center, placed there not only by the dark days of a down economy but also the bright lights of a national TV show, TLC’s “Extreme Couponing.”

The show features over-the-top shoppers who clear shelves of supermarket products and use coupons to pay next to nothing.

Some of the featured shoppers on “Extreme Couponing” have been criticized for questionable tactics, including use of counterfeit coupons.

TLC representatives have repeatedly said it’s up to show participants to follow coupon rules and store policies.

The Internet, too, is rife with websites advising consumers on how to game the system, even if it’s unethical or illegal.

“It’s going to accelerate the thing that irritates us all, the constant creeping up of prices and the constant shrinking of package sizes,” said Josh Elledge, chief executive “angel” at coupon deal site SavingsAngel.com.

Part of the thrill of couponing is getting items inexpensively or free. But that can create overzealous shoppers who develop an us-against-them mentality and rationalize counterfeiting and other fraud, experts say.

“That’s not sticking it to the man. That’s sticking it to everybody,” Elledge said.

Couponing instructor Jill Cataldo, who blogs at JillCataldo.com, is among the coupon experts at the forefront of advocating ethical couponing. She said she knows the type.

“They want to get all that they can as cheap as they can, and they don’t care who it hurts in the process,” she said.

“If you asked people if they shoplifted, they would be appalled,” said Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com. “But coupon fraud is no different than shoplifting.”

Fair couponing

Rules. Know them. They’re made by the manufacturer that issues the coupon, mostly explained in fine print on the coupon, and by the supermarket that chooses to accept the coupon.

Buying coupons. Coupon experts advise consumers not to buy coupons online or from a clipping service. Any sale or transfer voids the coupon, says the Coupon Information Corp.

So, where do you get multiple coupons to rack up savings like the shoppers on TV? “You buy multiple newspapers,” said Cataldo, who gets five copies of a Sunday paper delivered. “I think it quickly pays for itself.”

Free. If you have a coupon from a dubious source, and it has an unusually high value or specifies getting an item free, it’s probably counterfeit. Also, coupons included in an email, probably forwarded to you by an individual, are usually fraudulent.

Photocopies. Photocopying coupons is illegal. Scanning a coupon into a computer and printing it is no different. Each coupon has a unique print identifier.

If photocopies are made, a supermarket will be reimbursed for only one coupon with that particular identifier.

You also can’t photocopy printable online coupons. The coupon-printing software has identifiers for your computer, so the fraud can be traced back to you.

Decoding. Buy the specified size, version, variety and flavor specified on the coupon. “Many shoppers think that if a coupon ‘works’ or if a cashier takes it, then it’s a legitimate use of the coupon,” Nelson said.

A common ethical breach is to identify other products within the same brand that won’t be rejected by the cash register scanner and then try to sneak the coupons past the cashier. This is part of a practice known as “decoding.”

Greed. Shelf-clearing is generally frowned upon as an etiquette violation among avid couponers. The intention should be to save money on products you can use, not buy as many as you can.

Peelies. These are adhesive coupons stuck to the outside of a package that you could use instantly on the product. “Some people will go in and peel every single one of them off the products,” Cataldo said.

Fairies. It’s good form to be a coupon fairy. If you have a coupon that will expire soon and you can’t use it, leave it on the shelf near the product.

Resales. It is generally considered poor form to resell free or cheap items you acquired with coupons.

Donate. If you see a good deal, go ahead and buy several. Donate excess to charity.

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