Friday, April 8, 2011

"Extreme Couponing" - I guess the cat's out of the bag, and it crapped all over the floor

When I posted last night about the issues with TLC's Extreme Couponing, I was intentionally vague.  I didn't want to go into too much detail about the apparent coupon fraud that was shown so as not to appear like I was promoting or condoning such behavior.  That's not what I'm about, and that's not what this blog is about.

Well, today the lid seems to have been blown off the whole mess.  The story of "J'aime" and her nationally-syndicated (apparent) coupon fraud is all over the internets and it's a big 'ol clusterflock.  A sixth instance of coupon misuse was picked up that I hadn't noticed, blogs and message boards are exploding with angry couponers, and screengrabs of the show are being shared.

This post is gonna be long.

(note: some links to other sites in this post are currently overwhelmed with traffic and may not load for you right now.  If that's happening, try again later.)

Prior to the show being aired, some folks recognized one of the shoppers.  Normally that wouldn't be a big deal, but in this case she was recognized due to a bit of a mistake she made in June '10.  The first shopper in the first episode, Jaime (I'm not bothering with the apostrophe), got some attention last summer when she posted Youtube videos of a shopping trip she made to Target.  Those videos showed her using high-value coupons for Crest Whitestrips, Schick razors and Vaseline Sheer Infusion lotion on Bounty paper towels, Schick shaving cream, regular Vaseline lotion, and other products that the coupons weren't intended to be used on.  To make it even worse, she also indicated that she had used some internet printable coupons for Tide on her trip; Proctor & Gamble, the makers of Tide, do not issue any internet printable coupons and it's well known in the coupon community that any PDF coupons for P&G products are counterfeit.
So, that all happened and Jaime posted links to her Youtube videos and her blog online and a bunch of people watched her videos.  And they fairly quickly noticed the coupon fraud.  The reaction was swift and angry; she was chastised for cheating the system and Jaime very quickly removed the Youtube videos and deleted her channel.  She deleted her blog posts discussing the Target trips.  She apologized and said that the coupon classes she had taken had told her this was okay to do.  The company who offers these coupon classes responded by saying they taught no such technique.
Unfortunately the folks offering these coupon classes are being dragged into this mess again, and as others who have attended the classes have vouched that they don't teach this sort of thing, I'm going to refrain from bringing their name into my post.  I don't feel they're to blame one bit.

Jill Cataldo, a fantastic couponer and journalist, has compiled all this information in a blog post as well.  She's got photos and everything, so give that post a look for further details.

That's the backstory.  Jaime didn't post any further video or blog entries indicating any coupon misuse and the general feeling was that she had simply made a huge mistake, but had stopped with the coupon misuse.  The incident was largely forgotten.

When previews for the new season of Extreme Couponing started to air, some folks in the couponing community recognized Jaime.  There was obviously some concern that she would be appearing on a TV show about couponing when she had posted videos of herself committing coupon fraud online less than a year earlier.  From what I personally saw, the consensus was that everyone hoped she had learned from her mistake and would represent the couponing community well.

Then the show aired.
This was the first thing I noticed:
Hat-tip alanisrox69 for the high quality screen grab
Jaimie's shopping list.
If you're a casual couponer (or just a friend or family member who reads my blog to be nice!), it doesn't make much sense.  What's with the numbers in the second column, right?
If you're a more fanatic couponer, you probably recognize those numbers, and hopefully you were just as shocked as I was when you saw them.

(post continued below jump)

Those numbers are part of the UPC - the barcode.  It's the part of the barcode printed on a coupon that tells the register which item the coupon is for. 
Up until this year, there was only so much information a barcode could contain.  Rather than apply to a specific product, many coupons are coded (and this is strictly a numbers thing, not an intention) so that they match up the first few numbers of a product's UPC barcode.
For example, a coupon for $.75 off Fiber One cereal may have a barcode of 5123456789 (obviously not a real barcode, guys).  The 12345 part of the barcode is what tells the register which item the coupon is for.  With so many thousands and thousands and thousands of products out there, though, there simply weren't enough numbers to make sure that 12345 meant Fiber One cereal.  So, the Fiber One cereal's barcode hypothetically begins with 12345, but so do other General Mills cereals such as Honey Nut Cheerios, Kix, and Lucky Charms.  Even though the coupon is only intended to be used on the more expensive Fiber One, the cash register can't differentiate between Fiber One and Kix.  This is exactly one of the issues of coupon misuse I noticed (and a LOT of other viewers noticed) on the show - just one of the six instances that have cropped up thus far.
hat-tip alanisrox69 and Jill Cataldo for the screen grab
Of all the shots of Jaime's shopping carts, and of all the shots of her bringing her bags into her house, no one could spot one box of Fiber One cereal.  She used coupons for Fiber One, though, and a quick glance in my pantry shows that Fiber One and Lucky Charms have the same numbers in their barcode.  The register can't differentiate between the two when applying a coupon.

I didn't particularly want to get into the details of this situation in my earlier post because this is not behavior that I condone. 
Don't get any ideas, guys.  Please.
Your cashier will notice if you didn't buy 40 boxes of Fiber One cereal.  You're not shopping with a big production crew and cameras. 
In addition, with the new barcode systems that have begun rolling out this year, this type of coupon fraud is becoming impossible.  If there's any upside here, it's that it won't be happening once all the big stores get their new register systems in place that will be able to detect the misuse immediately. 

I'd like to encourage y'all to read the very thorough and well-written article that Jill Cataldo put together on the "inconsistencies" during Jaime's shopping trip. There's more than just cereal involved.

As Jill points out in her article, this is a big deal, and it does affect couponers as a whole.

First, there's the obvious moral & ethical issue.  Intentionally misusing coupons in this manner is theft.  It's a crime.  Seriously, it is.  Coupons are a form of payment, as they involve real money; the manufacturer remits real US dollars to the stores in exchange for all those coupons.  When one uses incorrect coupons to get $1900 worth of merchandise for $100, they've defrauded the store and the manufacturer out of that $1800.
Criminal aspects aside, it's just wrong.  Stealing is wrong, fraud is wrong.  You don't walk into a store, pick up a candy bar, and walk out without paying, do you?  Not only is that illegal, but we all learned as little kids that stealing is not acceptable behavior in a civilized society. 
Jaime made a point to say on the show that her "11th Commandment" was thou shalt not pay retail.  What about the 8th Commandment?

Second, understand that it isn't only regular folks watching that show.  People at the corporate offices of our favorite stores watch it, the manufacturers watch it, the people who decide what coupons to issue watch it.  And now they've watched one person use hundreds of coupons in a fraudulent manner.  When that sort of stuff happens, stores change their policies and honest shoppers get screwed too.  Manufacturers start putting stricter limits on their coupons. 
This makes a difference to all shoppers.  Those of us who make a point to follow the rules and do things honestly get screwed just as much as someone less honest.  Changes are happening in the coupon world, and they're changes that aren't great for the average couponer. 

The third thing to keep in mind is that due to the coupon misuse aired on national TV, a whole lot of people watching have now been misled into believing they can get $1900 worth of groceries for $100.  Understand that what we saw on this reality show was, well, fake.  If Jaime had used the correct coupons for the items she purchased, or purchased the correct items for the coupons she had, her total would have been closer to $1000 than $100.
Results are not typical here.  Hell, even Andy commented while we watched the show that he wishes we could get $1900 worth of groceries for $100.  I had to explain that to do so, we'd have to do the whole coupon fraud thing and, honestly, neither of us want to go to jail over saving a few bucks.  Bail is expensive.

Now, from the scuttlebutt I'm hearing, some of the manufacturers whose coupons were apparently misused on the show are involved now.  They would have every right not to reimburse Jaime's grocery store for those coupons.  Likewise, the grocery store involved is aware of the situation as well. 

That's going to cause some problems for shoppers in Jaime's area, and Jaime herself will probably find it difficult to pull this sort of scheme going forward.  I wish I could feel sorry for her but, honestly, I can't.  This is the same type of coupon misuse she was pulling last summer, and she knew it was incorrect when she got feedback then.  Eight months later she's done the exact same thing, only this time it was on national TV.  She knew what she was doing; I just don't know what the hell she was thinking doing it on national TV!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What is it about people that they absolutely must get a little bit more every time you offer them something? Fifty cents off? Well then, I bet we can get seventy-five! Let me have half off this box of cereal? Well then, if I run a bit of a scam, I can get this box of cheaper super frosted sugar bombs for free! Besides, I'm just being Robin Hood, ya know, stickin' it to the man.

Never mind that it's all the other honest people that end up paying for it.

All that for some cheap groceries and 15 minutes of fame on some show nobody will remember in six months. All it costs is your dignity, humanity, moral compass and soul, right? Well, they probably already put those up for sale on some other TV show. I'll stop the rant now, but it really does make me sick in the worst ways.