In my syndicated “Super-Couponing Tips” column this week, I tackled the increasingly prevalent issue of printable coupons for sale online. If you haven’t heard of this yet, you’re probably not spending a lot of time in the coupons-for-sale communities on Instagram (which is a good thing.)
I’ve had some readers ask for more information about this, so I’ve collected some screenshots and additional information from a professional in the industry to further explain what’s going on. I’m including much of the text from my original column here but expanding beyond my usual 650-word syndication guidelines to shed some more light on this.
Where relevant, I’m including some screenshots and graphics to help readers understand how everything works. I want to stress that I am in no way condoning this kind of activity, nor am I trying to encourage it — in fact, I would strongly discourage you from participating in it for many reasons. I am blurring Instagram account names and other identifying information in these images, although under Fair Use, I wouldn’t have to — I’m utilizing publicly-available screenshots for educational purposes. Again, all of what I’m showing you is publicly available on the web.
“What do you think of these IP [internet printable coupon] fairies on Instagram? What they do is store copies of all the printable coupons available. When a hot IP has hit its printing limit and you can’t get it anymore, but a few weeks later, you realize that a $1 same coupon would really be good for a sale right now, you can go to the IP fairies and buy those coupons online and they’ll email them to you. Being that these are real offers that brands put out there, they’re not counterfeits. I can buy them for 20 cents per coupon or $1 per page for three identical coupons. They are all over Instagram.”
Do not mistake something’s presence on the Internet as an indicator of its validity. What the printable coupon “fairies” are doing is coupon fraud on numerous levels:
- They transfer the coupons to someone other than the person who printed them.
- Nearly all manufacturer coupons are void at the moment they’re sold.
Despite this, resellers of printable coupons have surged in availability over the past few months, largely due to a problem that many printable coupon sites have unintentionally facilitated.
For many years, in order to print a coupon online, you had to install a plugin to your web browser. This plugin did several things: It limited the number of coupons a single computer could print, and it also prevented the entire coupon from being visible on a user’s screen. You could select a coupon and print it, but the coupon was sent directly to your printer. There were software controls in place to prevent users from capturing the coupon in a digital format and saving it to their hard drives.
What happened? Smartphones and tablets exploded in popularity. People largely transitioned to surfing the web from computers to handheld devices, but printing from these devices isn’t easy without a wireless printer. To make it easier for consumers to print coupons, many popular coupon-printing websites began allowing consumers to print or save coupons in portable document format (PDF.)
To illustrate this, I headed over to White Cloud’s site to print some coupons for bath tissue. Their coupons are powered by Coupons.com. Previously, coupons like these would have been sent directly to the printer, but now, here’s what I see when I print:
Now, the entire coupon is displayed on the screen — a practice that completely goes against the Coupon Information Corporation’s advice to manufacturers and retailers. (Again, I’ve blurred this screenshot – the entire barcode is clearly visible onscreen though.)
As early as 2008, the CIC advised manufacturers, “Coupon image should never appear on a computer screen. Coupons should not be in a PDF, .doc or other format that can be e-mailed. Anti-coupon-capturing technologies should be implemented.”
Not only can I save this PDF and print it later, I also have the option to print as many copies of this as I’d like! Both of these things used to be blocked by the major coupon printing sites.
Now, I’m prohibited from printing multiple copies of an identical coupon by Coupons.com’s terms, but how many people are going to see the “Copies: 1” selector and decide to bump that up a few more times? As each printable coupon is unique with individual identification numbers, stores are only reimbursed for each unique coupon presented at the register — not ten prints of an identical coupon. (If I do print ten and use them all, I’ll be hurting both my store and myself — when all of the copies reach the clearinghouse, my store will only be reimbursed for one coupon. At that point, the duplicates can be traced back to my computer, and I may lose my printing privileges permanently or face legal action.)
Unfortunately, in disregarding the industry’s best-practices advice to never allow a coupon to appear on the screen, many coupon-printing sites have opened the door to new forms of fraud. The same process that makes it easier to save coupons as PDFs for future printing also makes it easier to save them en masse and send the PDF files digitally to someone else. This spawned a new “industry” of resellers offering printable coupons for sale.
Think about this — coupon insert resellers have to deal with many logistics:
- Obtaining hundreds to thousands of inserts through questionable means
- Clipping and packaging hundreds to thousands of individual envelopes or packages
- Addressing, and physically mailing hundreds to thousands of packages to their buyers
Digital coupon sellers have a much more streamlined process:
- They simply have to “print” (save) as many copies as possible, then email them around the web.
- There’s no storing piles of inserts — no physical inventory is present at all.
- Coupons that expire soon can be sent instantly to a buyer versus waiting for physical mailing delays.
- Unsold coupons that expire while in “inventory” can simply be deleted.
- The entire operation can be run from a laptop.
The relative ease of operation when compared with insert sellers presents a perfect storm of opportunity for a new breed of coupon sellers.
Most printable coupons are limited to two prints per device. You might think that the only obstacle to selling thousands of like coupons would be that sellers would need access to an enormous bank of computers to print more than the two-coupons-per-device limit, right?
Browse popular coupon hashtags on Instagram and it’s likely you’ll not only see printable coupon resellers advertising their wares but sellers offering coupon-capturing software to rapidly save large numbers of printable coupons too. This software is available for less than the cost of a fast food lunch, which, of course, encourages more printable coupon resellers to join the market.
With a virtual-machine client like this one, the seller’s single computer appears as hundreds or thousands of different computers to the coupon printing sites, effectively unlimiting the print limits.
Some printable resellers even post videos of their virtual machine software scrolling by, generating hundreds of coupon prints for them or combining printed PDF coupons into a multiple-page document, ready to email to a buyer:
There are many reasons not to support printable coupon resellers. As most couponers know, printable coupons have finite print limits, and once a coupon’s limit is reached, it disappears.
Look at the screenshot below — the seller is bragging that the coupon “went NLA at 5:30am” — no longer available. They kept on printing it until there were none left to print:
With resellers grabbing up thousands of these prints, they’re effectively reducing the pool of coupons that will be available to you – then charging you to print the same coupons they helped remove from availability!
To further shed light on this issue, I spoke with Jane Beauchamp of Brand Technologies, a risk-mitigation firm that works for a variety of major retailers and consumer packaged goods fighting coupon fraud. She said, “This is the sort of content we are beginning to see on a regular basis. We have numerous undercover accounts deeply entrenched in the Facebook and Instagram space.”
She showed me an order list from an Instagram seller detailing the seller’s current inventory of printable coupons currently for sale. The seller’s list has over 150 different products and companies listed, and of those 150, the seller’s inventory has 35,736 different sets of 12 identical coupons for sale — that’s 428,832 coupons with a total face value of over $576,000! Here’s an excerpt of the list provided to me — I’ve added bold text to emphasize the quantities available for sale:
All sets are 12 coupons with 3 per page $1.75/set PayPal $1.50/set Google Wallet 24hour turnaround
Coupon Value Expiration Quantity
Bounty Paper Towels 6ct+ 1-1 18-Aug 667
Butterball Turkey Bacon 55c-1 7-Aug 118
Charmin Basic 12ct+ 1-1 18-Aug 669
Claussen Pickles 55c-1 18-Aug 669
Cooked Perfect Meatballs 1-1 1/31/2017 590
Dannon Whole Milk Single 50c-3 15-Sep 665
Franks RedHot Sriracha 50c-1 3-Aug 447
Frenchs Mustard 50c-1 3-Aug 499
Gain Laundry 40oz+ 2-1 26-Jul 1253
Gold Peak Tea (64oz) 1-2 13-Aug 487
Gortons 1-1 6/30/2017 345
Jack Links Jerky 2-2 31-Oct 382
Jack Links Jerky 75c-1 31-Oct 435
Kelloggs, Keebler, Pringles 1-2 5-Aug 398
Nutella Go 4pack 1-1 31-Aug 663
OxiClean HD Laundry Detergent 3-1 9-Aug 592
Power Bars 2-4 18-Aug 671
Prego Ready Meals 50c-1 15-Oct 661
Purex liquid (128oz+) 3-2 12/31/2016 1121
Purina Pro Plan cat food 5-1 31-Aug 313
Quilted Northern ultra (24ct+) 1-1 31-Jul 259
Seventh Gen LiqDishSoap1-1 1- Aug 507
Stonyfield Organic kids 1-1 31-Jul 233
Valley Fresh Product 75c-1 18-Aug 663
WhiteCloud FacialTissue 1-1 31-Dec 471
WhiteCloud TP 150-1 31-Dec 454
“In essence, this single seller is responsible for skewing the marketing budgets of food, beverage and household product companies by $576,000. Lest also not forget that they are selling these 35,000 sets for $1.75 each. That results in a potential income of $62,000 – just for the inventory on-hand [this week.] The person selling these sets is making quite a nice profit margin while skirting the system,” Jane said.
Think about those numbers for a moment — these numbers are for just one seller. There are currently over a hundred printable coupon sellers on Instagram.
(While working on this post, I had another thought too. Coupon websites pay affiliates a small commission per print or per print session — it’s partially how I fund this blog as well. It’s very possible that some of these printable coupon sellers are being paid on both sides of the equation if they too have registered as affiliates. They could receive sales commissions for printing their own coupons, then profit on the other side when those printable coupons are sold.)
The issue of printable coupons being sold is a rapidly-escalating problem, and it’s one that the industry needs to work toward eliminating sooner than later. Back in March, I attended the Coupon Information Corporation’s annual industry summit and spoke with representatives from several of the major coupon-printing sites about this emerging issue of IP resale. At that time, the companies I discussed this with felt that they had sufficient controls in place to combat mass printing and saving. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
I hope this helps shed additional light on the issue of printable coupon resale, and again, I urge you not to financially support it. You’re effectively paying a “ransom” for printable coupons that are freely available to you. You’re also encouraging the sellers to continue draining the available pool of prints as quickly as they can so that they’re no longer available to the general public.
When just one person can print over 400,000 unique coupons, a hundred sellers doing the same volume in a month’s time are responsible for removing more than 40 million printable coupons from the system — per month! Don’t the best, highest-value coupons seem to disappear quickly? Do not encourage the resellers to continue their activity by financially supporting their actions.
Perhaps the best reason to avoid purchasing printable coupons online is to prevent linking your personal financial information to a criminal’s. When legal action is taken against a coupon reseller, do you want your banking information attached to a criminal investigation?