With food prices soaring, more and more people are looking for savings at the supermarket. But beware -- there's also been a surge in coupon counterfeiting.
One fake coupon can cost retailers and manufacturers hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars. And that can rob savvy shoppers of precious time and money, leaving them fuming and frustrated.
For busy mom Theresa Jenkins it takes 20 minutes at the computer and a couple clicks of her mouse to save hundreds of dollars on groceries every week. Her two-cart grocery run for the family would normally cost $400. But with coupons, it's just $100.
Fear of counterfeits sometimes causes stores to reject Internet coupons altogether. Each store sets its own policy about coupons, and the policy can vary even within chains.
"My overall purchases are 70 percent less than retail value," said Jenkins. "I only buy them when they are on sale and use a coupon. So a lot of the items that I purchase… I'm spending just pennies for them."
But one day a store manager derailed her coupon mission.
"She said, you know, 'We can't take this coupon. We can't take any Internet coupons," Jenkins said.
The experience left a bad taste in Jenkins' mouth. "You just don't want to go back there and shop when you are treated that way, like you're stealing when you're not. You're just being a smart shopper."
Andrea Romberger, another mom and coupon clipper, had a similar experience when a store manager confiscated her Internet coupons.
"It was really disappointing because it's a great source of savings," said Romberger. "They make you feel like you're out to scam the system, when you're really just trying to save your family money and stay in a budget."
"Counterfeits tend to come in waves, and right now we seem to be at the beginning of a very large wave," said Bud Miller, executive director of the Coupon Information Corporation, a nonprofit organization composed of manufacturers fighting coupon fraud.
Miller says he's talked to many unknowing coupon lovers who are stopped at checkout counters because their coupons could be counterfeit.
"The great majority of people are very honest, and they're being taken advantage of by people who are selling counterfeits on auction sites and other locations," he said.
Miller displays counterfeit coupons on his Web site to alert consumers. And he warns shoppers never to "buy" coupons on the Internet -- a red flag for bogus ones. "There's absolutely no reason to pay for something that the manufacturers distribute for free."
Selling counterfeits is a crime punishable by fines and jail time. Pennsylvania couple Glenn and Joanna Schwartz recently pleaded not guilty to charges that Joanna sold counterfeit coupons on eBay -- allegedly committing wire fraud. Their case has yet to go to trial.
And just last week, Target stopped accepting a $5 toy coupon it had e-mailed to customers, because it was flooded with fakes.
But warnings about counterfeits won't stop Jenkins and Romberger from clipping and printing -- especially in this difficult economic time.
"With the rising gas prices, my kids don't have to, you know, it's not their extracurricular activities that have to go," said Jenkins.
Instead, these moms make sure their basics are bargains, so the money they save can be invested in something that's worth so much more -- their children.
A couple things to remember:
Never pay money for a coupon.