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Reader Mail: Are Photocopies of Coupons Legal?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Q: "My friend and I have been reading your column every week and we love your tips. My question is about Internet coupons. I know that you can usually print two copies of each one. We would all like to have more coupons. My friend said it is okay to make a copy of the coupons that print from the computer but I don't think this is right. Is it?"

A: Many new coupon users wrongfully assume it is okay to make a photocopy of Internet-printed coupons. Since they printed it out from their computer, they conclude it must be okay to make more. But making photocopies of coupons is illegal. It's coupon fraud. I've often equated this to photocopying a dollar bill. We all know that's illegal! And it's illegal to copy coupons, too.

Internet coupons have unique identifiers and barcodes. When a store submits their coupons to be redeemed, a coupon clearinghouse scans the barcodes and the store receives reimbursement for each unique barcode. If you make a photocopy of a $1 Internet coupon, each copy will be identical to the one before it. If you make 20 copies and use them all at the same store, your store will only be reimbursed for one of those coupons. You will essentially be stealing $19 from your store since the store no be paid for the bogus coupons.

Truthfully, we all pay the price when shoppers copy coupons and submit them for savings. In many areas, stores have become increasingly wary of Internet coupons. Some refuse to accept them at all, a big frustration for shoppers. Finding and printing out coupons using the Internet is a great way to supplement the coupons we receive in the newspaper each week, allowing us to obtain a larger number of coupons for the items we buy the most. Companies that offer printable coupons on the Internet usually set the coupons' print limit at two copies, so always go back and try to print the coupon again until you've received the message that the coupon is at its print limit. Remember, there are also times that a printable coupon will have higher print limits, too. Recently, a major cereal manufacturer had a $1 coupon on its Web site with a print limit of 14! That was a great opportunity to get a lot of coupons at one time. But it's never worth committing coupon fraud and risking prosecution over photocopying coupons.

Q: "My question is about expired coupons. One of the stores in my area will take them. But will the store get reimbursed for these, too, or are they just eating the loss when they accept expired coupons?"

A: When a store gets ready to redeem coupons, it gathers all of the coupons that customer have submitted, packages them up and submits them to a coupon clearinghouse. The clearinghouse weeds out expired coupons and fraudulent, copied coupons. After that, the clearinghouse invoices to the manufacturer for the value of all of the coupons received during that period. At that point, the manufacturer pays the store back for the coupons that have been redeemed.

Depending on when the store submits its coupons to the clearinghouse, some expired coupons may still be valid for reimbursement. But if you're using coupons that are several years old, the store is definitely "eating" the loss on those coupons.

So why do some stores do it? It gives shoppers an incentive to choose that store over its competition. Accepting expired coupons may give them an edge over a store in the same market that does not accept them.

(c) CTW Features

Jill Cataldo, a coupon-workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her Web site, www.super-couponing.com. E-mail your couponing coups and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.