I’ve seen a impressive upswing in computers that are littered with coupon related software. I’ve always been skeptical of these things but didn’t know much about them. I have assumed they were “drive by” virus-like infections that were installed without permission. I made this assumption because I see this stuff on computersbelonging to teenagers and people who apparently can’t afford toothbrushes, much less afford to constantly shop. So I turned my skeptical eye towards this industry to see what was afoot. I was surprised to see how big this industry has become. So large, in fact, that criminals are making a killing form counterfeit coupons. Who would’a thunk that?
Here’s how the scam works: Company A would post a coupon on their website. Honest website visitors would print off said coupon and redeem it at a participating store. However, it wasn’t long before companies noticed a precipitous drop in revenue in certain categories so they started looking into the problem. What they found was that people were using their computers to alter coupons so instead of getting 10% off an item, the coupon offered 50% or 75% discounts or even free products. Unscrupulous shoppers were presenting the coupons to unsuspecting cash register clerks. The coupon thief would then sell the items on websites such as eBay.
As word of this scam got around, some enterprising criminals started selling counterfeit coupons on the internet. In fact, this past July, some companies banded together and hired private investigators. The PI’s followed the bread crumbs to a pair of housewives who were operating an international coupon ring out of their middle class homes in Arizona. It is illegal to reproduce coupons in the US so the housewives had overseas companies print counterfeit coupons for them. They would then sell the coupons on their website here in the US. Those middle class girls now live comfortably in the Big House with bars on the windows.
To stop the monetary hemorrhage, companies fought back with computer technology. Many manufacturers now rely on the services of companies such as Coupon.com and SmartSource.com to deliver coupons to individuals. These websites require users to install bits of software to print legitimate coupons. The software assigns your computer a unique ID and will only let you print one coupon per offer. The software also assigns a unique barcode to the coupon so that it can only be used once thus preventing photocopying and counterfeiting.
There is a darker side to the craze. Coupons.com and other sites have been accused of installing software on end user computers that track the user’s surfing habits. Generally, this kind of data is not personally identifiable but the data could potentially inform manufacturers what websites you visit and glean marketing information that is really none of their darn business. This is not too big of a deal for me as my surfing habits are quite boring but the tinfoil hat crowd has fits over this.