Coupons are wonderful tools, but there are many ways to abuse them deliberately or accidentally. Coupon fraud is real, and people who commit coupon fraud get real punishments, including fines and jail time.

Unfortunately, sometimes it is hard to tell whether you are accidentally committing coupon fraud. Here are a few examples of coupon fraud that you might not be aware of:

Buying and selling coupons

According to the Coupon Information Center, “The sale or transfer of coupons violates virtually all manufacturers’ coupon redemption policies.”

This means that it is illegal to sell coupons you don’t want, and it is also illegal to buy coupons. As the Coupon Information Center notes, some people create organized crime rings that involve large coupon buying-and-selling schemes. But even small-scale buying and selling of coupons is illegal. People sometimes do not realize that selling, for example, an envelope of clipped coupons at a PTA auction can be considered an illegal activity.

Selling “coupon clipping services.”

Want to earn a few extra bucks by clipping coupons for family and friends? Sorry, that also falls under the category of fraudulent coupon sales. Even if you say you are selling your time and giving away the coupons you clip for free, you are still selling coupons.

Photocopying coupons

As soon as the internet made it possible to print coupons from home, people quickly began finding ways to get more coupons than the manufacturer intended to distribute. One common way to “double” your printable coupons is to photocopy them. This activity initially seems like you’ve found a clever loophole, but it is fraudulent.

Photocopying coupons is the equivalent of printing dollar bills — it’s fraud, plain and simple. Don’t make this mistake.

Using expired coupons

This one is tricky because some stores do accept expired coupons. For example, a famous rumor is that Bed Bath & Beyond will always accept expired coupons. (The Bed Bath & Beyond FAQ answers that question by stating, “Each coupon has an expiration date, and we ask that our customers use the coupon during the event period.”)

However, if you use expired coupons to sneak them past a checkout clerk or if you use expired coupons without confirming the store is willing to accept them, you are engaging in potentially illegal activity.

If you want to use an expired coupon, always ask first. Don’t cross your fingers and hope nobody notices. Also — don’t ask a checkout clerk if he or she will swipe your expired coupon this one time. Instead, do the right thing and ask about the store policy on expired coupons.

Using coupons on items for which they were not intended to be used

Some couponers figure out how to use coupons on items they were not originally intended to be used. Last June, two couponers got arrested for doing exactly this. To quote Coupons In The News: “Investigators say the pair “selected a large amount of lower-priced merchandise” and “presented coupons for similar but higher-priced merchandise.”

Although this type of couponing behavior seems like another loophole — “oh, look, the $1.00 coupon on the “family-sized” item also works on the “single-sized” item” — it is considered illegal coupon use. You need to use coupons only on items for which they are intended to be used.

Using counterfeit coupons

You can’t trust every coupon you find. Believe it or not, plenty of people make and distribute counterfeit coupons online. Sometimes, they try to sell these coupons to unsuspecting users. Other times, they pass the counterfeit coupons around.

How do you know when you have come across a counterfeit coupon? Here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Downloading coupons from online forums — they could be counterfeit
  • Using a coupon that was mailed to you as a PDF — also potentially counterfeit
  • Using a coupon with a blurry bar code — could have been photoshopped, might be counterfeit
  • Using a coupon with no printed expiration date — could have been photoshopped, might be counterfeit
  • Using a coupon with no fine print — a real coupon nearly always has fine print describing the terms of use

Think you might have a fraudulent coupon on your hands? Check it against the Coupon Information Center’s list of counterfeit coupons. Then learn these rules and ensure you aren’t accidentally committing coupon fraud!