The $40 Million Counterfeit Coupon Caper

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Talk about extreme couponing! Three women in Arizona were arrested recently for selling counterfeit coupons—a lot of counterfeit coupons. After an eight-week undercover investigation, police raided three homes in the Phoenix area, seized $40 million worth of bogus coupons, and arrested the women, who were enjoying a life of “opulence and the money was the equivalent of drug cartel-type of stuff,” according to the police.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that three middle-aged women in Phoenix were busted by police for involvement in an enormous counterfeit couponing ring. Originally, police estimated that some $25 million worth of coupons was confiscated. Local TV station KPHO has since noted that the estimated value of the coupons is actually $40 million.

In addition to the coupons, police seized $2 million worth of assets from the women’s homes, including $240,000 in vehicles, 22 guns, and a 40-foot speed boat. The scene at these homes, which sounds like something out of a rap video, indicates that the women, in their 40s and 50s, were hardly your prototypical thrifty coupon clippers. Sgt. David Lake, who led the Phoenix Police Department’s investigation into the coupon caper, told KPHO that the women involved in the illegal ring were living the high life:

“The opulence and the money was the equivalent of drug cartel-type of stuff. That’s the type of money they had,” Lake said.

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The women allegedly purchased the fake coupons overseas and then resold them at eBay and sites such as Selling counterfeit coupons is obviously illegal, and the site’s FAQ section discusses the tricky territory about the legality of buying and selling legitimate coupons:

You should not advertise that you have purchased any coupon. However, there are not any laws that prohibit the sale or purchase of coupons.

Manufacturers do not endorse or authorize the sale of their coupons. Some coupons state items are void if sold or transferred. For this reason, you will see many people who sell coupons disclaim, you are not actually buying the coupon, but instead paying for the time involved to find, sort, mail, etc.

Interestingly, the site has a “Wall of Shame” section devoted to “Bad Check Writers, Con Artists and Scammers,” and none of the trio of women recently arrested are listed.

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The police’s eight-week investigation, which involved undercover operations in which counterfeit coupons were purchased, was launched after victim companies such as Procter & Gamble and Hershey and the non-profit Coupon Information Center hired private investigators to find out the origin of counterfeit coupons hitting the market. Investigators contacted the Phoenix Police Department, leading to the arrests of the three women—two of whom have gone public swearing that they had no knowledge the coupons were counterfeit. The FBI is now said to be involved in an investigation to figure out where the fake coupons were made.

Couponing has grown enormously popular in recent years due to the Great Recession and the possibility of saving big money via strategies shown on the TLC program “Extreme Couponing.” The couponers featured routinely buy coupons from clipping services, even though the legality of doing so is questionable, and there have been confirmed incidences of counterfeit coupons being used on the show.

In a press release about the Arizona coupon counterfeiting ring, the Coupon Information Center’s Bud Miller said, “This case clearly demonstrates the dangers of purchasing coupons on the Internet, whether it is from independent websites, e-mail or from online auctions”:

“Coupon buyers expose themselves to the possibility of becoming involved with counterfeits, stolen property or other criminal activities. They may also expose themselves to additional risk by providing their names, home addresses and financial information to organized crime rings.”

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It’s not just retailers, manufacturers, and law-enforcement authorities who advise against buying coupons. Some coupon enthusiasts come down against the practice as well. In one of Jill Cataldo’s columns, the “Super Couponing” expert writes plainly:

Even though many places sell coupons online, you should never buy them. I have never purchased coupons from a clipping service or an auction site.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.