4 Simple Rules for Ethical Coupon Use

Did you guys happen to see that a Rochester Institute of Technology student was arrested by the FBI last week for coupon fraud? Apparently he was creating all sorts of fake coupons and releasing them to the public, costing companies a ton of money.

His biggest scam was a fake Tide coupon, that ended up being printed and used by tens of thousands of people. Proctor & Gamble, plus the retail establishments that accepted the coupons, were out some $200,000.

Now, I think we can all agree that making up fake coupons and distributing them on the Internet is theft. But even the best intended people can inadvertantly engage in some questionable and even unethical coupons practices if they don’t know better.

Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page when it comes to the ethical use of coupons, I thought a quick primer of the do’s and don’t’s of coupons would be helpful.

1. Use coupons only as stated.

Most of the time this isn’t a very big issue, ince a coupon won’t be accepted by the scanner unless you are using it properly. When a coupon isn’t accepted, you hear the dreaded beep.

If it’s a coupon for Cheerios and you’re trying to buy Frosted Flakes? Beep! If it says $1 off 2 items and you have only bought one item? Beep!

But sometimes a computer isn’t properly programmed and the coupon value is deducted anyway. And sometimes a cashier will push a coupon through anyway.

Now, pushing a coupon through is helpful when you are buying the right thing(s) and the coupon is just getting hung for some reason. But a cashier can also push through a coupon that isn’t being used right – either wittingly or unwittingly.

When that happens, either the manufacturer loses money or the store loses money. Either way, if it happens enough, stores and manufacturers will both clamp down on their coupon policies – which is no good for any of us!

2. Don’t use expired coupons.

Again, in theory an expired coupon should beep. But the computers aren’t always updated and sometimes a cashier pushes it through without checking the expiration.

I’ve inadvertantly gone up to the check-out with an expired coupon – it’s easy enough to do, especially if you clip your coupons ahead of time and haven’t cleaned out your binder recently. But using an expired coupon is not okay. The store won’t get reimbursed for it. A few days past the expiration date probably won’t raise any red flags, but consistent misuse of expired coupons will.

If you happen to have a lot of expired coupons and want something to do with them other than tossing them into the recycling bin, check out the Overseas Coupon Program. Members of the military and their families can use expired coupons up to six months later when they are stationed at an overseas military base. Adopt a base and start sending your expired coupons their way!

3. Be wary of PDF coupons.

Most coupons have a limited number of prints, but occasionally manufacturers release PDF coupons, which are unlimited. You download the coupon to your desktop and can print as many copies as you want.

PDF coupons are obviously a boon for the stockpiler. But you can also see why these coupons are often abused. In fact, the vast majority of fraudulent coupons are PDFs – including the ones that the RIT student was arrested for.

I do my best to vet any PDF coupon I share on this blog, but ultimately the responsibility falls on each of us to ensure that the coupons we are using are legitimate. How can you tell the difference? Here are two tips to keep in mind: (1) PDF coupons for FREE products are almost always fraudulent. (2) PDF coupons that are hosted anywhere other than the manufacturer’s website are most likely fraudulent as well.

4. Don’t ever photocopy a coupon.

This is a very common mistake, but it’s also a definite misuse of coupons. Printable coupons – especially when you print them in black and white (which is totally permissible) — can be really difficult to tell apart from a photocopy.

But here’s the deal: Each printable coupon has a set number of total prints, which is why some come – and go – so quickly. Additionally, each coupon is coded for a set number of prints per IP address. Most of the time, that number of prints is two, which is why you can use your back button to print a second copy.

Photocopying might seem like an easy way to get “around” these limitations, but it is, in fact, fraud. Each coupon has a unique bar code, so if a manufacturer suddenly gets 20,000 coupons  – rather than the 8,000 it allotted – alarm bells are sounded.

Thanks to that unique coding on each coupon, there are simple ways to not only determine that the coupons were photocopied (the same bar code, over and over again), but also to trace it to your IP address. Would a manufacturer go to this trouble for five or six extra coupons? Doubtful. But they could. And, even if they don’t, doing the right thing is less about getting caught than, well, doing the right thing.

Have you ever run into any questionable coupon situations, where you weren’t sure right from wrong?


  1. Thanks for this post. Although most of this should be common sense and ‘derech eretz’, it’s always good to have a reminder of what the boundaries are in cases like this where we don’t want to abuse a privelage. I am still new to coupons, so I haven’t had any strange scenarios occur.

    • Thanks for your comment, Yael! I agree – but then sometimes what’s obvious to me isn’t to another person. And, if nothing else, hopefully it was a good reminder. We can save so much from coupons, no need to try “gaming” the system, yk?

  2. Funny you should mention #4 today. I shared your blog with a coworker today because I know she buys morningstar farm products and you linked the coupon yesterday. She asked me if it was ok to photocopy it instead of using the back button to print it twice. I told her “No Way!” Coupon fraud is sure to limit coupons and store policies regarding coupons.

    • Yeah, for some reason photocopying really seems to be the most often made “newbie” mistake. I really think they just don’t know it’s not okay – but hopefully we can teach them that it’s not 🙂

      • I guess I’m a newbie… More like a “baal coupon” (as I used to use them, stopped & I am once again using them…)
        Thanks for the info.

  3. Thank you. This was really informative and a reminder to be ethical.

  4. I have no problems using coupons from national corporations. They have made a business decision to give me the product for free. They are not going to go out of business if everyone uses their coupon for a free box of cereal or bottle of dish washing soap.

    But I feel guilty getting a good deal using coupons at my local kosher Chinese takeout. They end up losing money everytime I go in. The restaurant sends out coupons for “get one quart of soup free with a $5 minimum purchase”. The idea is obviously that once people come in, they will order a lot more than $5 worth of food. Well, a lunch special, which includes a pint of soup, entree, and rice, is $6. I buy one lunch special, use the coupon, get several packages of free soup noodles, and I have dinner for my whole family. It is obviously legal. But somehow it feels wrong when I know the owner, and I know that providing me with all this food could cost the restaurant more than $6.

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