Early Tuesday morning, local law enforcement raided four Phoenix, Ariz. properties and arrested three women accused of running the largest counterfeit coupon ring in the country.
During the bust, investigators also uncovered more than $25 million worth of bogus coupons and confiscated 22 assault weapons and 21 vehicles, along with a 40-foot boat, local law enforcement told CBS 5.
"These aren't '50 cent off' coupons. These are 'free item' coupons," Police Sgt. Dave Lake said. "For Iams, you get this coupon from her for $10 and you can get a $70 item... If you can get an unlimited number of those, think how this grows."
The investigation was led by the Phoenix Police Department in conjunction with the FBI and a roster of manufacturing giants that included Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Hershey, according to industry watchdog Coupon Information Corp.
As many as 40 major manufacturers were burned in the fraud, with police estimating hundreds of millions of dollars in lost profit. When several of the affected companies teamed up with Procter & Gamble to investigate the source of the counterfeit coupons, the trail led them to Phoenix, according to AZ Central. They tipped off local police, who launched the two-month investigation that culminated in Tuesday's bust.
Robin Ramirez, 46, Amico Fountain, 42, and Marilyn Johnson, 62, allegedly ran the bulk of their business out of the area, using a fake website and eBay to sell consumers fraudulent coupons at a deeply discounted rate.
In order to receive the free or discounted coupons, users were "invited" to join the site and given a 100 percent guaranteed return if the deals were rejected at the point of sale.
The website domain may sound familiar. "Savvy Shopper" magazine sends out real coupons to consumers each week, but officials say the scammers simply borrowed the brand to make their scheme seem more legitimate.
While none of the consumers who purchased the coupons will face charges, counterfeit coupons could easily land the people and businesses that unwittingly purchase them in hot water.
“Coupon buyers expose themselves to the possibility of becoming involved with counterfeits, stolen property or other criminal activities," CIC Executive Director Miller said. "They may also expose themselves to additional risk by providing their names, home addresses and financial information to organized crime rings.”
The key to avoiding counterfeit coupons is simple, according to CIC: Don't buy them.
-Beware of invalid disclaimers, such as “You are not paying for the coupons, but for the time and effort it took to clip them.”
-Be wary of any coupon emailed to you by anyone but the manufacturer or its authorized distributor
-If a coupon is visible on a computer screen, it is probably counterfeit
-Free product coupons are seldom, if ever, distributed on the Internet.
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