Some Coupons Clippers, Refunders Go Too Far, Postal Inspectors Say
PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Marie Haley spent nine years filling out product rebate forms to save money, but she ended up getting a $60,000 fine, a criminal record and a two- year suspended prison sentence.
As more people clip coupons and submit rebate forms to reduce grocery bills, postal investigators warn that fines and possible jail sentences await those who go too far.
Mrs. Haley, 68, of Uniontown, Pa., amassed $50,509 by collecting and submitting 27,000 rebate forms to manufacturers from 1979 to 1988, prosecutors said. The refunds averaged $1.86 each.
After postal authorities questioned Mrs. Haley on the amount of mail she was receiving, prosecutors charged her with submitting rebate requests for products she never bought using dozens of assumed names and addresses.
She pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud and was sentenced last November.
″When I entered into this, I had no intent. It just snowballed,″ she told U.S. District Judge Paul Simmons. ″It was never my intent to get into anything like this in any way, shape or form.″
Connie Arvidson, 34, of Boca Raton, Fla., was convicted Jan. 30 in Dallas of mail fraud and conspiracy for swapping and redeeming hundreds of thousands of bogus coupons in a $2 million scheme. She was sentenced to 27 months in prison plus three years of supervised release.
She said she became obsessed over the years in her quest for rebate and coupon offers, often raking through the garbage to get proofs of purchases for refund deals.
Hobbyists say big savings can be realized through a combination of rebates, coupons and strategic shopping.
″The best I ever did was to buy $519.66 worth of groceries for $22.10 in 1984,″ said Susan Samtur of Scarsdale, N.Y., who publishes Refundle Bundle, one of about a dozen coupon and refunding magazines that list hundreds of money-saving offers.
″I used the free coupons I received after sending away for rebates and refunds on double coupon days where I could buy the smallest size of a product and get the product virtually for free,″ she said.
Jean Kwiatkowski, editor of Moneytalk, a monthly refunding magazine published in Larksville, Pa., said: ″It’s a combination of not just refunding, but doing smart shopping. You have to use your cents-off coupons to purchase the items participating in a refund. Believe it or not, sometimes you can work it so you get paid to buy the product. But that doesn’t happen all the time.″
Companies offering refunds generally require that a rebate form be accompanied by a proof of purchase from products, such as a label, bar codes, or a cash register receipt. Offers usually are limited to one per household, and it’s illegal to use a coupon or a refund form for a product not purchased.
″Ignorance is no defense,″ said Tom McClure, a Postal Service inspector and spokesman in Washington, D.C. ″If someone purchases a product and they’re entitled to that rebate, they should get them. But if they don’t buy the product, that’s fraud. ... There’s no gray area about it.″
Susann Schneider, a Pittsburgh postal inspector, said she doesn’t always believe people who claim they didn’t realize they were breaking the law.
″A lot know exactly what they are doing,″ she said. ″Sometimes they’ve got cash registers in their homes, they go out of their way to photocopy cash receipts or they steal whole packets of refund forms from stores so they’re not available for anyone else.″
A person who receives a large amount of mail or has rented a large number of post office boxes can arouse the suspicions of the Postal Service.
Postal authorities said individuals who are spotted breaking the law on an occasional basis are called in as a warning and asked to sign a form promising to stop.
″We have to prioritize,″ McClure said. ″We’re probably not going to go after a coupon trading club. But if we think you’re defrauding companies out of thousands of dollars on an annual basis, we’ll have to take a look at it.″
It’s difficult to tell how many people submit refund requests fradulently.
″We don’t have a system to find out, but we do hear about isolated cases across the country,″ said Judy Farrell, manager of customer service and coupon control for Neilsen Clearinghouse in Clinton, Iowa.
″The crimes generally are not big enough to spend a lot of money prosecuting,″ she said. ″Usually an offender is fined or allowed to sign a consent decree promising they’ll stop whatever they’re doing.″
Neilsen is one of about a half-dozen major firms that process coupon and rebate forms for companies like Proctor & Gamble, General Mills and Kellogg.
″The things we look for in refunding are duplicate submissions where they send in more than one with their correct name,″ Ms. Farrell said. ″We also look for groups of people using one address or variations on one name.″
Suspected violations are reported to postal investigators a few dozen times a year, she said.
Fradulent coupon redemption is a much more serious problem, McClure and Ms. Farrell said. Coupon scams can involve sophisticated groups taking in millions of dollars.
Small retailers looking to make extra money sometimes try to redeem stacks of coupons untouched by consumers - coupons they’ve clipped en masse from newspapers or bought from someone else.
She estimates as much as 10 percent to 15 percent of all coupons are fradulently or incorrectly redeemed.
″There were about $2.9 billion in coupons redeemed in 1988,″ she said. ″A lot of money is generally there for major mail fraud.″
End Adv for Wednesday PMs, May 16