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:
“INELIGIBLE VALUE CODE IN FORMAT CODE 992 COUPON”
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 <Dustin_Smith@discovery.com>
To: Jill Cataldo <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: Coupon Information Corporation releases statement on “Extreme
Date: Mon, 13 Feb 2012 23:13:42 +0000
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:
- Update: 200 more counterfeit coupons used on TLC’s “Extreme Couponing”
- Why your shopping trips aren’t quite like the ones on “Extreme Couponing”
- Shopper admits committing coupon fraud on “Extreme Couponing”
- Supermarket apologizes for participating in “Extreme Couponing,” allowed shopper to misuse coupons for the show
- Store that does not double coupons doubled coupons “just for the show”