If you photocopy a coupon or snatch one from a recycling bin, you're risking arrest. If you cut off a coupon expiration date or take more than your fair share, you risk being a jerk.
Four supermarket cashiers were recently brought up on criminal charges — for theft via coupon.
They used the cash register "coupon override function" to help customers steal nearly $70,000 worth of groceries from the Humble, Texas, Kroger where they worked, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Most coupon fraud doesn't come in the form of a four-person scheme that lasts three months, as this one did. But illegal couponing happens more often than you might think.
Some say it even happens on national television. In May 2011, during the first season of TLC's Extreme Couponing, the Coupon Information Corporation accused the hit show of depicting couponing practices that "may raise civil and/or criminal issues."
When the second season of Extreme Couponing got underway, the CIC, which is a 16-year-old national nonprofit, released its Considerate Couponing guidelines.
I think that some of their tips are simple common courtesy, but other tips will help you avoid criminal charges of your own. So I plucked their most relevant tips, added some, and broke them all down based on what's actually illegal, potentially illegal, and against the rules...
[See also: Extreme Couponing? No Thanks]
Making your own coupons. This may sound silly, but counterfeiting coupons is a crime just as counterfeiting money is. Last year, 22-year-old college student Lucas Townsend Henderson surrendered to the FBI, which brought him up on charges related to his creating and disseminating fake coupons online. The FBI estimates that stores lost hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of Henderson's fake coupons, and he could face up to 30 years in federal prison. If you think you spot a fake, check the CIC's list of counterfeit coupons.
Photocopying coupons. This is also a type of counterfeiting. The use of fake coupons is tantamount to stealing because sto
res will not be reimbursed for the value of fake coupons and therefore will lose revenue they were counting on.
Using a coupon to buy a product it wasn't intended for. This is a type of coupon fraud and, according to the CIC, "almost always" a violation of federal, state, or local law. So if the fine print says your toothpaste coupon can't be used to purchase the travel-size tube, don't try to use it to buy that size and hope the cashier won't notice.
Stealing newspapers: You may have seen couponers do this on Extreme Couponing, but taking something that isn't yours is theft.
Bottom line: Think of coupons as dollar bills. If you wouldn't fake, photocopy, or steal a banknote, don't do it with coupons either.
Buying coupons. While buying coupons isn't illegal, you could be buying illegal coupons. Even if they're legit, the CIC points out that the coupon manufacturer could sue you or the seller for violating the "nontransferability" clause printed on all U.S. coupons.
[See also: How to Get the Best Deals in the Grocery Store]
Dumpster and recycling-bin diving: I got a laugh out of this: "The CIC, for reasons of safety, strongly recommends that no one enter into dumpsters." I think it's safe to say that people willing to brave a giant trash receptacle probably aren't concerned with safety. At the same time, the CIC correctly points out that diving into a dumpster on private land can get you arrested for trespassing, and that removing recyclables can get you arrested for theft. The same goes for removing recyclables from curbside recycling bins, also known as "scavenging."
Bottom line: Sure, these actions aren't always illegal in all areas, and you probably wouldn't get caught anyway. But that doesn't mean they're worth the risk.
Cheating the System
Removing expiration dates. The CIC calls cutting the expiration date off expired coupons "dishonest." It's also disrespectful: The store may not get reimbursed when they send your expiration-less coupons to the manufacturer.
Making multiple transactions: On Extreme Couponing, it's common practice to break up a grocery haul in order to bypass the store's or cash register's coupon limit. But just because a store allows it when national TV cameras are rolling doesn't mean it falls within their coupon policy.
Taking multiple coupons. You know those stick-on coupons you can pull off a product before you buy to use when you buy it? You're not supposed to steal them off every product on the shelves. The same goes for those of you who hit the back button to force a limited Coupon.com coupon to print twice. When you take more than your fair share of a limited coupon, you're denying the next shopper their fair share.
Bottom line: Breaking rules isn't like breaking laws. It's more like cheating on a test — arguably unethical and best avoided whenever possible.