Extreme Couponing: Criminal Edition
by Federal Bureau of Investigation
October 29, 2021
The first time in 2021 the Coupon Information
Corporation (CIC) called Postal Inspector Jason Thomasson with a tip
about a Virginia Beach resident who they believed was making and
mailing counterfeit coupons, the center didn’t yet have a sense of
the fraud’s scale. Without a loss amount, Thomasson didn’t think he
could gather support for an investigation.
A few months
later, the CIC, an association of manufacturers that tracks coupon
fraud, called back to say they had linked over $125,000 in fakes to
the suspected counterfeiter. At that point,
Thomasson started asking around the FBI’s Norfolk Office, where he
works as a task force officer, for a partner on the investigation.
Special Agent Shannon Brill was intrigued. “It was a different type
of case,” she said. The pair went to work.
And last month,
that counterfeit coupon maker was sentenced to more than 12 years in
prison and ordered to pay $31.8 million in restitution to the
retailers and manufacturers who suffered losses in her scheme. Brill
and Thomasson said that loss number is likely a conservative
estimate of what Lori Ann Talens, 41, and her group of criminal
couponers were able to steal.
Agents found thousands of fake
coupons in the home of Virginia resident Lori Ann Talens.
During a search of Lori Ann Talens' home, agents found thousands of
counterfeit coupons, rolls of coupon paper, and coupon designs for
more than 13,000 products on her computer.
During a search of Lori Ann Talens' home, agents found thousands of counterfeit coupons, rolls of coupon paper, and coupon designs for more than 13,000 products on her computer. (FBI
courtesy photo - 2021)
was also convicted for supporting the scheme and sentenced to 87
months in prison.
For anyone who has casually clipped coupons
for $1.50 off shampoo or cat litter, it’s hard to comprehend how
fake coupons could add up to those staggering figures. But Brill and
Thomasson said it came down to the volume of coupons Talens created
and her ability to create fakes that offered deep discounts off of
“She trained herself in the different techniques she
needed to manipulate barcodes to make these coupons work,” said
Brill. Talens had a background in marketing and strong computer
design skills. Brill and Thomasson said she was able to create a
coupon for almost any grocery or drug store product and to make it
for whatever value off she wanted. Often the discount was near or
even over the retail value of the item.
“She had coupons for
$24.99 off a $25 box of diapers. And it would work,” said Thomasson.
“And you’d have people walking out the door with those diapers for
The investigators said store cashiers are
not asked to question the coupons customers are using. “That’s not
their job,” said Brill. If the coupon scanned correctly, the store
would honor it, she explained.
“Someone has to eat those
losses. It ultimately funnels down to us, the consumers.”
Inspector Jason Thomasson
So the fakes would go undiscovered
for weeks or even months. Coupons typically travel from local stores
to central coupon clearinghouses. The coupon clearinghouses collect
them and then bill the product manufacturer for their value. That’s
how the retailer gets repaid.
“If the coupons are rejected,
if they are counterfeit, then the retailer doesn’t get paid back for
them,” said Brill. “But that whole process takes a lot of time. By
the time a coupon gets identified as being fraudulent or fake, that
coupon has already been used who knows how many times.”
Talens not only regularly used her own coupons, but she sold them to
a large group of subscribers who found her through social media
groups. Using an encrypted app to communicate with her customers,
she only allowed in new members if they were referred by an existing
member of the group. Each new buyer had to send a copy of their ID
and provide evidence that they had used counterfeit coupons before—a
way of making sure her buyers accepted some amount of risk in the
scheme. Talens accepted payment through popular payment applications
or by virtual currency and sometimes exchanged coupons for stolen
rolls of the special paper stores use to print out coupons.
Over three years, Talens was paid about $400,000 by her subscribers;
the agents credit a diligent FBI forensic accountant for
painstakingly tracing thousands of transactions through payment apps
and virtual currency wallets.
With the profits, she paid for
high-end home renovations, including a new kitchen, sunroom, and
in-ground swimming pool. Her family also took trips, shopped, and
dined out while paying little or nothing for the things they
Investigators said that when they served the search
warrant, they found fake coupons—worth more than $1 million—in every
crevice of the house. “There were coupons in every jacket pocket;
they were stuffed in her vehicles,” said Thomasson. They also found
designs on Talens’ computer that allowed her to create coupons for
more than 13,000 products.
While coupon fraud may sound like
an insignificant crime, it creates painful ripples through the
economy. “Someone has to eat those losses,” said Thomasson. “It
ultimately funnels down to us, the consumers.”
buys anything will pay for those crimes,” echoed Brill. She also
wants people to understand there is a real risk in trying to cheat
stores and product manufacturers with fake coupons, and those risks
extend beyond the person running the scheme. Brill and Thomasson
said the Talens investigation is not closed out, and those who
participated in her group or engage in similar schemes should not be
surprised if they hear from investigators.
Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) |