Confirmed: Counterfeit coupons used on TLC’s “Extreme Couponing”

When TLC premiered the first episode of “Extreme Couponing” in 2011, coupon shoppers around the country took to the web to voice their concerns about the rampant coupon misuse and fraud depicted on the show. Some of the show’s shoppers appeared to be using coupons for products they didn’t buy (and later admitted doing so) or used hundreds of coupons that are limited to one or four like coupons per transaction. Stores unfortunately played along too, with some agreeing to double coupons “just for the show” or allow the show’s shoppers to utilize coupon overage, even when it wasn’t their policy to do so for their other shoppers.

Coupon bloggers around the country have dissected the show, noting the sheer number of coupons that appeared to have been misused, the store policies that were disregarded during the taping, and numerous cashiers overriding registers beeping that coupons did not match the items being purchased. One supermarket chain even blew the whistle on the amount of rule-bending, policy-lifting and staging done for their episodes of Extreme Couponing. It released a statement to the media expressing the store’s regret at participating in the show, acknowledging waiving part of its policy for the benefit of TV cameras, and apologizing to its regular customer base.

All of this is old news to anyone who’s even casually followed the show. Judging from reactions on coupon blogs around the web, most coupon shoppers became so tired of the coupon misuse depicted week after week that they simply stopped watching. I did too for most of Season 2. But back in October, I tuned into an episode of Extreme Couponing entitled “Katherine and Joel.”

Joel, a 16-year-old from Burbank, caught my eye because he was so enthusiastic about couponing. Who doesn’t love seeing a teenager fired up about saving money? Joel shopped at Gelson’s, a high-end California supermarket. And indeed, Joel had one incredible shopping trip. He had numerous coupons for entirely free products – five coupons for free bottles of All laundry detergent, six coupons for free boxes of Fresh Step cat litter, and then there was the toilet paper…

“There’s a coupon that the manufacturer was giving out for a free 12-pack of toilet paper,” Joel said in the episode. But he didn’t have just one free coupon — he had 34 of them. The on-screen graphics note that Joel purchased a total of 408 rolls of Quilted Northern toilet paper, and all of it was free.

As Joel and his family wheeled their seven carts of toilet paper to the register in this episode, I felt the proverbial red flag go up. Most coupon enthusiasts are aware of what current and legitimate coupons are circulating at any given time, but this trip seemed, well, unbelievable. While it’s possible that Joel had obtained all of these free coupons legitimately from the manufacturers, it was hard not to consider another possibility. What if the coupons he was using were fake?

When Joel arrived at the checkout lane, he said “I am shaking, I am nervous, I need a restroom.” The cashier began scanning Joel’s toilet paper coupons, and then he said “There’s something wrong with the coupon.” The register’s screen showed the following message:


The cashier brought an assistant over to look at the screen, and they said “It’s not on file… it’s not taking it.” After some discussion, the cashier stated “The register doesn’t accept the coupon for $11.99, so I need my manager to put his code in for an acknowledgment.”

The manager overrode the register’s warning, and the coupons’ value was deducted from Joel’s total. At the end of the episode, the show’s voiceover boasts that Joel enjoyed a 93% savings on his shopping trip.

It all seemed a little too good to be true, didn’t it? In this case, it was. The bar code on Joel’s toilet paper coupon immediately looked fake to me. First, it’s an older form of bar code on the right side that was phased out during the GS1 Databar transition (to the new form of barcodes now present on coupons.) The value field of the coupon is also miscoded.

I forwarded some screenshots of Joel’s to the Coupon Information Corporation, the organization that fights coupon fraud. After researching the issue, the CIC has determined that the coupons Joel used in his Extreme Couponing shopping trip were indeed counterfeit (link to their press release.)

Here’s what you didn’t see on TV:

Once the counterfeit coupons reached the manufacturer, the manufacturer denied payment to the store. A representative from Gelson’s contacted the producers of Extreme Couponing, outraged that they would absorb a loss of over $400. Joel’s mother then paid the store the value of the product that her son “bought” with the fake coupons.

None of this has ever been aired on the show or released to the media prior to today. In fact, you can still view Joel’s episode of Extreme Couponing right now on Amazon Instant Video.

There are a lot of questions. Where did the counterfeit coupons come from? Unfortunately, fraudulent, fake, and counterfeit coupons are extremely easy to come by online, either on auction sites or websites selling “free coupons.” When a counterfeiter can turn a $2, $5, or $10 profit selling useless pieces of paper… and people are willing to part with their money and attempt to use these fake “free” coupons, fraud will continue. And, if you don’t think counterfeit coupons are a serious matter, the CIC is currently offering a $100,000 reward for information on several counterfeit coupons that are currently circulating.

The other question that continues to run through my head is “Why?” Why would any honest couponer want to beat and cheat the system, especially when every detail of the shopping trip will be filmed for TV? What kind of pressure is TLC putting on the shoppers featured in Extreme Couponing to have the “most extreme” trips of their lives?

There are serious issues on many levels if Joel, a minor was encouraged to break the law and use fake coupons to create this incredible-for-TV trip. And we know from the show’s history that there’s already very little “reality” in this show. With the CIC’s confirmation that Joel used on Extreme Couponing are counterfeit, TLC and Extreme Couponing are not only promoting a criminal act, they’re profiting from it.

I reached out to Joel in an attempt to speak with him and hear his side of the story, but at the time of this writing, he has not responded. I welcome Joel and any of the Extreme Couponing participants to share their stories if they would like to. (Update: At 4:49pm on 2/14, Joel responded via email: “Due to my current agreement with TLC, I can not release a statement for an interview.”)

If you’ve followed some of the controversy surrounding Extreme Couponing, you may remember that after shopper Jaime Kirlew’s coupon fraud was depicted, TLC released a statement that they were opening their own investigation into coupon fraud on their show. That was on April 17th, 2011 — 302 days ago at the time of this writing. Dustin Smith, vice president of communications for TLC, stated in an interview last April, “Any questions about specific strategies that have brought up, we’re looking into them. We’re taking any concern seriously and we’re researching the specific allegations.” (link.)

Where are their findings? Surely, after almost a year, with access to the full, unedited footage from their shoppers’ Extreme Couponing shopping trips, they must have come to some conclusion. Instead, TLC has remained silent, continuing to churn out episodes of Extreme Couponing filled with coupon misuse, misredemption and fraud. And now, with the CIC’s confirmation, TLC can add counterfeit coupon usage to that list too. This time, they promoted crime committed on TV, by a minor, for the sake of ratings.

The CIC has continued to suggest TLC retain the support of an independent industry expert to insure the integrity of future episodes, with a commitment to following all laws and rules pertaining to couponing. To date, TLC continues to decline.

Today, I also telephoned Dustin Smith, Vice President of Communications for Discovery Communications, parent company of TLC. I shared that the Coupon Information Corporation had determined that Joel used counterfeit coupons on Extreme Couponing and asked for his response. He stated, “Until I see their statement, I will not be able to respond.” He asked that I forward the CIC’s statement, and then if he felt it necessary to respond to it, he would.

I asked, “Prior to my phonecall today, were you aware of this situation?” Mr. Smith replied, “I will not comment on that at this time.”

UPDATE: 2/13/12, 5:13PM: After forwarding the CIC’s statement to Dustin Smith, Dustin emailed the following response:

From: Dustin Smith <>
To: Jill Cataldo <>
Subject: Re: Coupon Information Corporation releases statement on “Extreme
Thread-Index: AQHM6qUggNouXTBzmEiYnNcSwpprUg==
Date: Mon, 13 Feb 2012 23:13:42 +0000
user-agent: Microsoft-MacOutlook/
x-originating-ip: []

Hi Jill,

Thanks for the note. We will not be offering a comment.


UPDATE: On March 6th, TLC featured Joel shopping for a second time in a new episode of Extreme Couponing. Meanwhile, TLC has yet to release a statement on Joel’s counterfeit coupon fraud during his first appearance on the show.

Images from TLC’s “Extreme Couponing” used under Creative Commons license.

More instances of stores bending, lifting, and breaking rules for TLC’s Extreme Couponing:



  1. Green Is Good says

    I actually feel bad for Joel. I don’t think he knew they were fake. He probably bought them on eBay and thought he was going to be famous for getting such great deals. I saw him on an episode of Anderson Cooper talking about coupons! Maybe Anderson should expose TLC! :-)

  2. Flag1 says

    Somehow this doesn’t surprise me. Coupon fraud does not seem to deter some people and makes all of us look bad. Very sorry they even had a minor on the show who was committing fraud. I stopped watching and hopefully their ratings will go down enough that they will stop creating new shows. That is the only way I can see this stopping unless the show itself is held liable. Thank you Jill for all that you do for us legitimate couponers. I have been at this off and on for thirty years and this old dog still learns new legal tricks.

  3. slambin says

    I understand that TLC is encouraging this fraud to get good ratings. Good ratings equals more ad revenue for the network. Why do manufacturers continue to buy ads during this show? I guess ultimately it’s the supermarkets that are the end victims since they do not get reimbursed for fraudulent coupons, but I just don’t understand why the manufacturers would continue to support a show which features people trying to rip them off. Maybe if the manufacturers and their ad dollars boycott the show, it will go away. Wishful thinking, I guess.

  4. cmjohanson says

    I get this question a lot, and my answer is “NO WAY! I hate that show! It has ruined it for the real couponers!” I also get plenty of heavy sighing, eye-rolling and such both from cashiers and other customers when I hand over my stack of coupons. Then again, I often impress people with the money I save, and I’m happy to spend the extra few seconds to do it. However, I do believe they have made it way harder for us to save. Shame on you, TLC, shame on you!

  5. sahettinger says

    I guess the thought is also creeping into my mind — how much of this is the individual and how much is really the producers of the show? Meaning … are those coupons really the individual’s idea OR are the producers just finding someone willing and handing them a stack of coupons to “work their magic” with?? Just a thought.

    And, if the individual did indeed gain the coupons themselves (and not from the show), maybe it wasn’t Joel’s doing. Perhaps another member of the family got them and used the child, knowing full well he was a minor and that if they were “busted”, the consequences would be less for a 16 year old??

    Also, I don’t know about this particular kid, but I do know when I was 16, I wasn’t couponing. I was in high school, working a part time job and in my free time spending it with family and friends (mostly friends because, hello, I was SIXTEEN). While I’m not saying there’s no kid out there in this world, I just think there’d be better things they’d want to spend their time on. ;)

  6. Coupon Maven says

    After forwarding the CIC’s statement to Dustin Smith, Dustin emailed the following response:

    From: Dustin Smith
    To: Jill Cataldo
    Subject: Re: Coupon Information Corporation releases statement on “Extreme
    Thread-Index: AQHM6qUggNouXTBzmEiYnNcSwpprUg==
    Date: Mon, 13 Feb 2012 23:13:42 +0000
    user-agent: Microsoft-MacOutlook/
    x-originating-ip: []

    Hi Jill,

    Thanks for the note. We will not be offering a comment.


  7. NWmom says

    Hi, Jill,
    I’ve often read your blog but just started an account so I can ask you why it is that no one ever seems to face consequences for fraud and misuse.
    The CIC must have lawyers, and I know the stores have fleets of them.
    Why no lawsuit against TLC? Why no prosecutions of people doing what-let’s face it-is stealing?
    At the very least, why no cease and desist letters to bloggers promoting fraudulent or illegal behaviors? Sure, the internet is a big place, but I bet we’re all thinking of the same blog that benefited from this show big time and continues to promote the purchase of coupons, and a lot of other wink, wink scenarios.
    I’m not meaning to sound negative. I just feel like it’s a disservice to the honest, ethical couponers when folks who misuse them face almost no real consequences. I don’t want to see this kid thrown in coupon jail, but I’d sure Love TLC to have to issue some sort of disclaimer at the start of their programs.
    If you have any insight here, I’d really love it!

  8. Stl Coupon Wizard says

    Hello Jill,
    I Have seen one of the shows, the first and that is it. I run several blogs and my main blog is a member of Coupon Integrity. Just after the begining if the first sersis I interviewed Natan Engle for a post on my blog. He seemed likeable and to talk to him he seemed to have good intentions. During our conversation my shopping habits came up and he suggested and refered me to TLC to appear on the show. Well I am a Walgreens shopper and all of us that shop Walgreens knows that you would not be able to do what these people do at one Walgreens store. I exchanged several emails with TLC and was finnaly dropped. I informed them I could and would produce the numbers that any of their shoppers do at a profit. I don’t shop Walgreens unless there are deals to be made. I make a profit every time I shop Walgreens which is something the TLC shoppers do not do. Well Back to my point, They decided against me because I requested that I do the show the way I shop “By the rules” That was something they were not intrested in at all and it now is coming front and center in the media thanks to blogs like yours and many others. Keep it up they (extremes) will go away at some point.
    The want to be Extremers took over Walgreens for a long time and I completely stoped shopping that store because I had some rather heated discussions with these people with their carts full of product. Standing in line while these people stood at the register screaming and demanding they get their deals with no reguard to the rules at all. Walgreens finnaly decided to enforce the rules that they already had and it stopped the extremers and yes I am back to shopping Walgreens at a profit and enjoying it. If the sale warrants I start shopping at 12:00 midnight on Saturday night and shop untill my coupons are gone. I have hit up to 30 Walgreens in 16 hours of shopping and gathered $1,600 of product at a $250 profit (in RRs) and never cleared a shel. The profit is used to get Groceries with coupons of corse at Walgreens. Last year I donated about $15,000 of product to freinds, family and charities. I say about because I do not keep track of my donations, I Just give it away. It is great to see all of the fraud starting to surface, Us honest couponers new from the start that this was not real and that there was never an attempt to make it real, it was “Made for TV”
    Neal Miller

  9. beaner2 says

    Why don’t they just film a show with people using counterfeit money? When you make and use a fake coupon to buy things it is the same as making fake dollar bills. Why does anyone even want to run ads on this show? I know Dove body wash advertises. Going to email them today and complain.

    We all knew how fake this show is but it should not even be allowed to stay on with showing kids using fake coupons and passing it off as real. It makes people think it is ok to do and they never show his mom having to pay for the fakes!

  10. Dealznstealz says

    CIC is funded and backed by the Industry – the BIGGEST STAR of TLC EC was Kroger. The big BRANDS sponsored commercials during the TLC EC show. Northern ALLOWED these FRAUDULENT COUPONS to stay on EBAY even after the show aired!! I posted on Northern’s FACEBOOK wall in October/November alerting them to HUNDREDS of free coupon listings!! STORES and BRANDS chose to look the other way in return for the HUGE PROFITS and PROMOTION of this show!! Kroger has the most to gain by rushing coupons to digitals (distribution of FSI Paper coupons are DOWN – kids don’t eat GAS or DOG FOOD!!( show taught fraud and clearing shelves. Kroger allowed over 1,000 cereals bought and CATALINAS for one TLC EC Star. Now Kroger LIMITS 5 LIKE coupons and Kroger cashiers were forced to sign a contract that will allow them to be fired if the coupon policy is not followed strictly. Who lost BIG – the customers that propped Kroger/Brands profits. Boycott Kroger!!

  11. darkdutchess04 says

    Ya know, I’ve been mis-lead just as much by the show as I have by the people who run some of these coupon blogs. I once read a post about a philips electric razor and how there was a coupon to get it free. I printed 4 and ran out to find them. In the city I lived in I had 2 Walmarts. The first had the razors at the price indicated by the blogger, but they were the wrong ones. I tried anyway, but was shut down by the staff at the store. After explaining their policy to them, I admitted defeat and left to go to the other store. Again, I found the wrong razors and tried again, but this time I was not let off so easily. I was escorted to the customer service counter while the presumable manager that lead me there made some calls. I immediately thought “OMG I am about to be arrested for coupon fraud, me, of all people”. Thankfully some quick talking seemed to make her happy and she handed me back all my stuff and I left. I never shopped at that store again.

    I returned home to comment on the post with my disgust at the way the blogger listed the “free” item, only to find that not only was I not the only one who had run into this problem, but that some people had actually gotten the WRONG items with no problem. This blogger told people it was okay to misuse the coupon, and only after 30 or so negative comments did she finally take the post down due to, as she put it “a misunderstanding”. It’s not a misunderstanding when you tell people to print a coupon and then give them a picture to go by and they go out and get into trouble trying to do what you – a supposed expert – tells them to do. Of course the show probably does not help, but still…. the bloggers have been just as bad. I follow several too and there have been quite a few times when one blogger, or several will post something and then another, or several will post about that something saying “I’ve done my research and this is fraud, do not do it”.

    After this experience I had to seriously re-evaluate my couponing and the different strategies I used and followed through others. After reading about how badly the show showcased and allowed fraud to occur, and mis-lead people into believing they too could do this, I now realize 2 things. 1. I will never be able to accomplish those extremes and 2. I am done trying.

  12. avenger says

    It’s simple. Buy groceries with fake coupons = Extreme Couponing? Nope, Extreme Shoplifting.

    I’d love to hand a useless stack of sheets of paper to my supermarket and see if they’d let me take a cart of groceries out in exchange.

    Actually no I wouldn’t because I have a moral compass.

    Jill you need to look more closely at the last season of EC, those fake Quilted Northern coupons were used in at least 3 other episodes by other shoppers too.

  13. Keuer72 says

    So sad, and frustrating! Thanks for posting!
    Just last night My mother (long time couponer 25+ yrs) calls me after her Walmart shopping trip all upset. She was denied overage for the $1.50 12ct or smaller breathe right coupon. They told her the ol we just had a meeting today not allowing overage speech. The manager came over and proceeded to tell her about some lady that used $10 crest coupons on trial size toothpaste (those whitestrips coupons) and got $250+ cash back!! So they all got in trouble, and now are not allowing overage. Of course they were all rude to my mother. I just cannot believe how some people can ruin things for the rest of us. This is the second time our local Walmart has told us about this coupon being used wrong there. Ugh…

  14. AndroAsc says

    What a coincidence, Angel Soft is on sale at Meijer this weekend and I was searching for coupons on eBay. Guess what I say? Free Angel Soft up to $15 value ?!?! Such listing are obviously frauds, does anyone know how to lodge a complaint to eBay to takedown these fraudulent coupons???

  15. SavingwithSaveOne says

    That’s very scary to know that I could come in contact with a counterfeit coupon and not even know it. I don’t think people are aware that altering coupons and stealing coupons is against the law because we don’t hear about it enough. People take extra newspapers because they think “oh it’s just a newspaper” but they don’t realize that a mother who did this, may go to jail for 1 year and they took her daughter away. So it’s not just a newspaper.

    This information needs to be on the local news and in all the magazines and on every blog to warn people. We as bloggers teach people how to coupon but not how to make sure they don’t get into trouble with coupons even accidentally.

    I can imagine if a family is struggling to put food on the table they may do things that are illegal with coupons but they think isn’t a big deal and no one will find out because “it’s just a coupon”. But what people need to realize is you can get into serious trouble just as if you were to take something out of a store right now without paying for it and you could wind up not only going to jail but losing your kids.

    There are so many conflicting reports on this subject. Who hasn’t heard of Jaime Kirlew yet people hear about what she did and they don’t see her getting into trouble with the law so they probably say “oh well the law wont bother me over some coupons, they didn’t do anything to her”, but then they did arrest a unknown lady for stealing coupons.

    The law needs to be consistent with the whole coupon fraud thing. Jaime should have been brought up on charges and she wasn’t so that sends out a message to struggling families that, they can do illegal things with coupons and not get into trouble.

    Seriously, how can you have someone ON VIDEO commiting a CRIME infront of MILLIONS of people and that person have nothing happen to them? Seriously? How is anyone to take any of this seriously but they should.

    This needs to be addressed more and thanks for writing this article to get it out there so maybe others will think twice before committing coupon fraud and now I know to be on the look out for counterfeit coupons.

  16. Ryan says

    Thank you for informing us. Really that scared! How anyone can do like this. Once again thank you for sharing your experience with us. Someone needs to take action against them…

  17. elliescoupons says

    Should Joel take ALL the blame?

    I finally watched this show, and started googling all the people.

    While I COMPLETELY agree that those using fake coupons should get in trouble, the on with Joel is different. Not because he was 16, but because the register DENIED the coupon, and then the MANAGER overrode the coupon, thus accepting the fake coupon. He had a warning, the machine did not take it, and then when he didn’t get paid for it, he complained.

    But, as a former manager and cashier, the blame in that case, seems to lie at the hands of the manager. Even the cashier didn’t take the coupon, he couldn’t, because he didn’t have authority.

    Other than that, I agree that TLC shouldn’t promote such recklessness, but in this case, I feel that the manager took a risk for the sake of tv and forced the mom to pay for his mistake. He should have taken the responsibility.