Friday, April 8, 2011

Was coupon fraud shown on TLC's Extreme Couponing?

To my regular audience, we'll get back to grocery coupon talk very soon. However, this is an issue that cannot be ignored, as it affects the perception of all coupon shoppers who use coupons in an ethical manner. Many readers across multiple, respected coupon sites and blogs contributed to this report, and I will try to acknowledge them all at the end.
Earlier this week, I posted an article about Jaime Kirlew, one of the shoppers featured in TLC's new season of "Extreme Couponing." Jaime made a name for herself last year when she posted YouTube videos showing her shopping at Target and fraudulently using coupons for one product on another (coupons for Crest Whitestrips on Tide, coupons for Olay Body Wash on Secret deodorant, and so on.) When commercials for the new show began airing, many members of well-read messageboards among the couponing community recognized Jaime from her YouTube videos and raised concerns about whether she would use coupons in a fraudulent manner on TLC's Extreme Couponing.
The first clue that something was amiss with Jaime's shopping trip was her grocery list:

This list raised a lot of red flags with seasoned coupon shoppers because there are no products listed on it. Instead, the list consists of manufacturers' names, and in the next column, a list of five-digit family codes -- a portion of a product's UPC bar code. The header row of that column appears to end in a "C" (UPC.)
Why would someone create a shopping list consisting only of product family codes, plus the coupon's dollar value that shares that family code?
Unfortunately, there's really only one logical answer to this question -- to use a coupon for one product on another, knowing that the register will "match" that coupon to a similar product.
Note that I do not teach UPC decoding as a method of matching coupons to sales -- it is not only highly unethical, but using the information obtained via decoding to intentionally then misuse a coupon to buy something other than what is specified is coupon fraud -- a crime. Without explaining exactly how it is done, there is a portion of a coupon's barcode that matches a portion of the product's barcode. This is how the register determines if the product has been purchased. Because of the way that the older barcode on a coupon matched that coupon to a product's family code, coupons for one General Mills product might scan without beeping on a different General Mills product. (And, don't get any "clever" ideas that decoding barcodes to use one coupon on a different item to get a better deal might be "smart shopping" -- it's fraud, plain and simple. This family-code coupon fraud exploit is being eliminated with an industry-wide update to the barcode system this year. Safeway stores' registers have now received the update, as have many others around the country.)
I'm going to post the evidence that many readers found over the past few hours. Please feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Looking at the video of her shopping trip from Wednesday night's premiere of Extreme Couponing on TLC, a reader posted three screen captures of the cereal Jaime purchased and the coupons she used to buy it:

The cereals that Jaime was shown buying in the episode were Honey Nut Cheerios, Lucky Charms, and Kix, which were all part of a good sale the week of February 4th (if Safeway's ads are the same as our Dominick's, which they usually are, those 3 cereals were priced at $1.99 per box that week when Jaime shopped.)
However, the coupons that she appeared to use were for .75 off Fiber One cereal.
As Fiber One is a more expensive cereal, General Mills typically issues higher-value coupons for Fiber One. That .75 coupon doubled to $1.50, netting her .49 cereal. A great deal... IF the Fiber One had also been on sale too. But it wasn't.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that perhaps she also bought Fiber One cereal and it just wasn't shown on television.

In the next set of photos, we see Jaime's box of coupons for her trip. Note the .50 coupons for Pillsbury French Bread and $5-off-2 Nivea Body Lotion:

On the show, we were not shown her buying any Pillsbury French Bread or Nivea Body Lotion. However, she did buy .99 small cans of Pillsbury rolls and bottles of Nivea Body Wash.
With the small Pillsbury cans on sale for .99, the .50 Pillsbury French Bread coupons applied to them would double to $1, making them free. The Nivea Body Lotion that the coupon is for typically sells for over $6/bottle. However, that week the Nivea Body Wash was much cheaper - $2.99 (again, if our Dominick's ad from that week is the same as Safeway's.) Using the $5-off-2 coupon made the body wash .49.
Great deals... IF the coupons had been for the right products.

But again, for the sake of argument, let's assume that somewhere, she also bought Pillsbury French Bread and Nivea Body Lotion, even though we never saw those products purchased on the show.
In this photo, we see Jaime has a paper clip full of coupons for .50 off 4-packs of Yoplait Yo-Plus yogurt:

On the show, we were not shown Jaime buying any 4-packs of Yoplait Yo-Plus Yogurt. But she did buy quite a few single cups of Yoplait Yogurt, which typically sell for around .33 per cup:

With a .50 Yo-Plus 4-pack coupon being applied to a .33 single cup of Yoplait, each cup is free with possible overage. But again... it's coupon fraud to use the 4-pack coupon for an entirely different variety of Yoplait on the single cups.

So, again, for the sake of argument, let's assume she also bought Yoplait Yo-Plus 4-packs, which viewers weren't shown in the segment.
In this photo, we see lots of packages of Buddig Original lunchmeats in her cart:

These 2-ounce packages of Buddig Original meats were on sale for .89 per package. On Jaime's spreadsheet shown at the top of this post, she notes that she will be buying 63 packages of Buddig, and she notes that she has $1 coupons for each of them with the UPC family code 77400.
Looking at a coupon database, there were two current Buddig coupons in the inserts available during her February 4th, 2011 shopping trip. One coupon was a $1-off-4 2-ounce Buddig Original meats (again, the kind priced at .89 during this sale.)
The same coupon insert also contained a $1-off-1 Buddig Deli Cuts coupon. Buddig Deli Cuts is a more expensive variety of lunchmeat that comes in a larger, 12-to-16-ounce package.
Again, back to the spreadsheet. She planned to buy 63 Buddig lunchmeats priced at .89 each with 63 $1 coupons.
If she was using the $1-off-4 2-ounce packages of Buddig coupon (the correct coupon for this size product) she would have had to buy those lunchmeats in quantities of 4, again, as it is a $1-off-4 coupon. Couponers are notoriously good at math when it comes to figuring out trips!
It would make no sense to buy 63 of something that you needed to buy in quantities of 4, (you'd buy 64, an even number) unless...
She intended to use the $1-off-1 12-to-16-ounce Buddig Deli Cuts coupon on the Buddig Original 2-ounce variety that were on sale for .89. With a $1 coupon, they'd be free... but that would be fraud.
Which coupon did she appear to use for the Buddig Original 2-ounce lunchmeats?

The $1 coupons for Buddig Deli Cuts, 12-to-16-ounces.
Here is a photograph of the coupon, oriented the correct way so that the size and product can be read:

Because this coupon shared the same family code as the smaller packages, it scanned -- but the coupon is not for this product. It's for a different kind of Buddig that is also a larger size.

Why is this a big deal?
If the correct products were not purchased with the coupons used, it's coupon fraud. Coupon fraud is a crime.
The terms of a coupon state "CONSUMER: Redeem ONLY by purchasing the brand, size(s) and quantities indicated. ANY other use constitutes fraud."
  • Using a Fiber One cereal on Cheerios is a crime.
  • Using a Pillsbury French Bread coupon on Pillsbury rolls is a crime.
  • Using a Nivea lotion coupon on Nivea Body Wash is a crime.
  • Using a Buddig Deli Cuts coupon on Buddig Originals is a crime.
However, without seeing her receipt, and without seeing the entire contents of her trip on television, we do not know what else she may have purchased in this trip.
Unfortunately, there may be a few novice or non-coupon shoppers who, even when confronted with this, may think, "So what? She got great deals!"
And, they're out there. When this story started to break yesterday, a fan on Jaime's Facebook wall wrote,
"Gabby Paige - I don't even get why people are bothered by this??!! It does NOT affect YOU or any one else for that matter it doesn't take money or food out of any ones pocket whooooo carrrreessssss everything is so dam n expensive these days any way!"

Actually, this DOES affect all of us.
It affects the store because if the manufacturer wishes to audit the store for this transaction, and the manufacturer determines that the products that the correct products were not purchased with these coupons, the manufacturer can refuse to reimburse the store for them. Then, Safeway will "eat" the cost of this shopping trip, because the terms of the coupon were not followed -- the specified items were not purchased, so they don't have to pay.
It affects new coupon shoppers whose interest is piqued by what they see on the show. Seeing something on television validates it as "truth" for many people. If they see a "reality celebrity" using coupons in an "off-label" manner, for products that are similar but not, as the manufacturer puts it, "ONLY ..the brand, size(s) and quantities indicated," they will assume this is acceptable -- or else, why would it be shown on television? People assume that surely, the show must have an expert or professional on hand overseeing the kinds of trips that these shoppers are planning for the cameras, because thousands of viewers will want to duplicate what they see. Their other shows (My Strange Addiction, Hoarding) have a psychiatrist or therapist on board to protect and guide the people being depicted on the show, don't they?
This situation also affects anyone who isn't an "extreme couponer" but simply wishes to use coupons during a shopping trip. What kind of scrutiny are people like you and me going to face at the register, when cashiers assume "those darn coupon shoppers" are trying to put one over on the store?
One bright spot in this story is something I touched on earlier -- as the industry transitions away from the old bar code to the new GS1 Databar (the "funny-looking" barcode on the right side of your coupons) it will eliminate this kind of fraud, as the new barcode is much more specific to the type of product that it can be used on. The new barcode system upgrade is in place at most stores now and has been rolling out around the country since this episode was filmed. DO NOT try to defraud the system by decoding barcodes.
The evidence is the video is difficult to refute. It looks like coupon fraud was committed on television, in prime time, as a ratings-grabber. Coupon fraud IS a crime.
If the manufacturers refuse to reimburse Safeway for these coupons, Safeway will take a loss somewhere in the range of $1,800. Jaime's pre-coupon total was over $1,900 on the show, which she couponed down to about the $100 mark. How is that any different than shoplifting $1,800 worth of groceries from Safeway?
The answer: It isn't.
And "Extreme Shoplifting" isn't what this show should be about.

Thanks to Jill Cataldo for the Article.


  1. I am an avid coupon shopper but I do so WITHOUT committing a crime and shame on both the couponers and TLC for promoting fraud. I have got items for free, and close to free or at incrediable savings by simply matching weekly coupons to the sales and store promotions, I buy what the coupon is for and I don't ever try to "beat the system" and I did so the honest way. A real shame, always has to be someone to ruin it for everyone else.

  2. If I use a coupon at the register, and it's mistakenly for another product, the cashier will tell me because the register will beep and she will tell me "you have the wrong coupon". I don't understand how things work on this show but how could the register just let the incorrect coupons go through??

  3. Yikes....Great post : ) Just stumbled it.

  4. wow! (jaw dropping to the ground!)... amazing post! and yes, totally sucks that others have to ruin it for us. I use lots of coupons but I make sure that:

    1. they are not expired
    2. for the specific brand
    3. for the size specified, if any

    again... wow!

  5. I couldn't believe it when I read the article myself. That's why I posted!! I also can't believe how much attention its brought to Crazicoupons! Welcome to all!!

  6. Has anyone made contact with TLC? I am curious about what they feel has happened. Ultimately I feel they bear some responsibility.

  7. she probably steals coupons off boxes too

  8. I'm curious as to how they double so many coupons. Safeway has a strict policy... 4 doubles with a max of .50.

  9. She should ashame of herself for using fraud coupon. They should put her in jail for all this.

  10. The registers at Target and BJ's scan the coupon by manufacturer... So, if I have Tide and give then a coupon for another product made by Proctor and Gamble, the register will accept the coupon... At Publix, the registers accept ALL coupons. You can give them any coupon and they will accept it.

  11. Anonymous asked, " I don't understand how things work on this show but how could the register just let the incorrect coupons go through?? "

    It was probably prearranged by the grocery store and TLC for the coupons to all be accepted. It's a win/win situation for them...Free advertising for the grocery store and high ratings for TLC.

  12. I just posted on their Facebook page in hopes it doesn't fall on deaf ears. I tried to find a place to contact the network directly but as of yet haven't found a number or email. This is unforgivable what they are airing and should be made aware of how it upsets us. I hope they get reprimanded for what they aired.

  13. wow shocked by the fraud - was really trying to work out how they did it - with shoprite having a a four coupon doubling policy i was really confused.!!
    I was also shocked by the hoarding 100s of everything really? there are people out there really struggling do they really need 200 boxes of pasta??
    no signs of any donations to food banks - they are actually mentally ill

  14. Someone told me that the Hoarding show followed the episode of "Extreme Couponing".....interesting, huh?!!

  15. LOL, I wonder how many coupon inserts she steals out of people's papers before they wake up on Sunday mornings? Or at a store - when my parents had a store, we got the inserts 1-2 days early. She's disgusting...and that picture of herself on FB is NOT flattering. The bulk of this show just makes me sick...people are SO goddamned selfish..."All for me, none for you"!

  16. So glad you brought this to everyone's attention. Ive been couponing for seven years and I know this behavior (although illegal) is rampant. I cannot believe that TLC didn't have someone verifying the coupon usage. Shameful.

  17. Glad I came across this information! I hope that show doesn't cause the companies to stop giving us coupons. Maybe they will cancel that show-to greedy!

  18. TLC aired the show Sister Wives and Polygamy is illegal in Utah where they lived. So I don't think the network has any show morals. It's all about the ratings.

  19. I think people must know her so well they just think she is buying the right stuff. I hope the stores near her learn. Also, was she the one who said she goes to young male cashiers and that seems a little fishy also

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  21. This is the first time I've heard of this barcode "decoding" and I'm appalled! I hope the new system will keep people from stealing from grocery stores.

    (I did want to point out one thing about the cereal coupon. I can't read the "listed cerals" on there, but it does appear to have a list on it (those little black dots in the wording says to me there is most likely a list of accepted cereals there) and I currently have a coupon that lists different kinds of GM cereals on it. Couldn't her coupon be one of these, and have included the kinds of cereal she purchased?) I'm not defending her defrauding AT ALL, I'm just pointing that possibility out. ;)

  22. I too watched the episode. Yesterday, I did my rounds at the big 4. Shoprite cvs riteaid walgreens. I am an organized couponer that does get a thrill out of cutting my bills by over half. I was just saying last night to my boyfriend(without) reading any of the news about last weeks show) that they must use the coupons fradulenly because no way in hell can you buy the meats and dairy items for pennies. Yes maybe one or two itms a week but realistically 1,900 to 100 dollars if its too good to be true...SHAME SHAME SHAME what does she think about her image now...I actually just replayed the episode well the mustard cost after her coupons was29cents @ piece for I believe it was 61 0r 63 bottles of french mustard totaling 23.29 now her toatal bill was 103 and change you do the math. TO all that play the game of couponing properly kudos and for J'aime forget your eleventh commandment the easiest one is thou shall not steal. I have written several manufacturers reguarding this episode of tlc extreme couponing and have urged them for an audit of this transaction. When it proves to be fraudulent they should file fraud charges against this women. Examples will have to be made or your going to see coupons disappear.

  23. Also SHAME SHAME SHAME not once did she mention a food bank or homeless shelter. My family is only my boyfriend and myself. We Have been couponing and sale searching for about a year. My goal is to have enough for 4-5 people for 1 year regurding non perishables and 6 months of meats breads veggies etc. thatcan be frozen. I get great deals on meat when the sell by date gets closer. However, it is my personal goal to help those in need... real need... noone needs 61 btles of mustard unless they are feeding a small army.I also dont clear shelves, people who work and have families and other obligations dont have the time to go back to the store because the shelf was cleared. Not only is it dishonest it is inconsiderate of others. Did anyone notice how she thought of herself as rich lol lolouder or believes other people percieve her that way.

  24. I am not supportive of J'aime's fraud. As a matter of fact, it makes me sick. BUT, the total was pre "anything." Club card was a big part of reduction and then some of the coupons were valid. It seriously bothers me that some people would strip the shelf of items they do not need just to have years worth of product or make a sensational TV show.
    I think we need to keep our comments in line with the gravity of her fraud - it's horrible even with those two things taken into consideration. Let's not join her in "exaggerating" an already large amount.

  25. Well... let's not forget this is "reality TV." We don't know that the transactions were real or that the cashiers weren't actors. Let's not go accusing a woman of committing a crime when we don't have concrete information. Wasn't she supposedly a paralegal or legal assistant? I can't imagine she'd be dumb enough to commit a crime on film she knew would be televised.

  26. I was wondering how those "Extreme Couponer's" found so much time to do so much research - I've tried looking for super deals with coupons (the legal way) and you have to not only find the store that sells the cheapest product that the coupon specifies, but also compare it with stores that may double the coupon, also checking out any sales that may allow for a cheaper price... It's a LOT of work- for EACH product - because not all stores have all products cheaper... you need to shop around! This totally makes me feel better that I'm doing all this research and not coming up with the same savings as on the show. (because you CAN'T get the same savings unless you break the law)

  27. I understand that what she did is fraud but I have to wonder about the cashier?? Doesn't anyone think its odd that she let all those transactions happen? Whenever I use coupons if the computer says there's a problem, the cashier always double checks it. I have had the computer beep and say its the wrong coupon when in fact it is right and then they have to insert it manually but rarely...this most happens at Walmart. I will say that this is a tv show and they don't show EVERY transaction and you can't judge what really happened if you weren't there. However, having said that, if she did do those things, then that is just plain wrong and it makes it harder for us who really need to save money!

  28. i am a mother of 4 and my husband has been out of work for over a year now i have watched the show and always wondered how that all works would someone be willing to teach me how to do the couponing correctly so that we could also save on our grocery bill thank you