If you’ve ever watched the TLC show “Extreme Couponing,” at some point you probably thought something along the lines of: $500 worth of groceries for $6.79? There’s no way things could work this way in real life. At least in the case of one “extreme” controversy recently brought to light involving fake coupons, you’d be right on the money.
A non-profit organization called the Coupon Information Center (CIC), which says it has been around since 1986 and is “dedicated to fighting coupon misredemption and fraud,” is extremely disappointed in “Extreme Couponing.” Last May, the CIC announced its hope that TLC would “address potentially illegal acts that appear to have been portrayed on the show,” which “appears to portray coupons being used in violation of the terms and conditions printed on the coupons.”
Last week, the CIC confirmed that, indeed, one of the couponers featured on the show had used counterfeit coupons. In an episode that aired in October, a 16-year-old boy from California named Joel used nearly three dozen coupons at a supermarket to get 408 rolls of Quilted Northern toilet paper entirely for free. Turns out the coupons were fakes, and the kid’s mom wound up repaying the store for all that toilet paper.
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None of those details were aired on “Extreme Couponing,” though. As far as viewers of the show knew, Joel received all of those toilet paper rolls free of charge, and saved 93% in total on his extreme coupon-fueled shopping excursion.
Naturally, the fraudulent use of coupons depicted on the show, and TLC’s refusal to do much about it, has gotten the couponing world up in arms. “Extreme Couponing” is giving ethical couponers a bad rap, they cry.
Among the many couponers who take issue with “Extreme Couponing” because it’s unrealistic, encourages hoarding and wastefulness, or just because it makes people who use coupons seem nuts, one critic stands out: Jill Cataldo. The self-proclaimed “Coupon Maven,” Cataldo was originally contacted by “Extreme Couponing” to be a part of the show, but after coming to the realization that it mainly wanted to showcase “crazy coupon ladies,” in Cataldo’s words, her interest faded.
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It was Cataldo who actually reached out to the CIC to point out the counterfeit coupon scheme. In her blog post on the matter, Cataldo makes some serious allegations:
There are serious issues on many levels if Joel, a minor, was encouraged to break the law and use fake coupons to create this incredible-for-TV trip. And we know from the show’s history that there’s already very little “reality” in this show. With the CIC’s confirmation that Joel used on Extreme Couponing are counterfeit, TLC and Extreme Couponing are not only promoting a criminal act, they’re profiting from it.
A SmartMoney post, meanwhile, relates that something of a coupon queen catfight has developed, with Cataldo squaring off against J’aime Kirlew, a paralegal, mother of three, and enthusiastic couponer featured an “Extreme Couponing” episode that aired last year. Discussing Cataldo, Kirlew had these words:
“I’m at the height of frustration with her,” Kirlew says. “I don’t know who she thinks she is. Is she bitter because TLC didn’t choose her to be on the show?”
(MORE: One-Quarter of Extreme Couponers Have Incomes of $75,000 or More)
Just how legit are the couponing strategies shown on “Extreme Couponing”? How and why did a teenage boy try to get away with 408 rolls of toilet paper? What’s the real story behind Cataldo and Kirlew’s beef?
We may not get answers to these questions. One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t want to be behind either Cataldo or Kirlew in the supermarket checkout line
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.