Massive Discount Coupon Fraud Gets Virginia Woman 12-Year Prison Sentence

  • Got to hand it to her — she was an expert at what she did.

You wouldn’t think faking a discount coupon is that big of a deal. Sure, it’s illegal, but saving an illegitimate dollar on toothpaste seems like a victimless crime.

But start stacking those small savings up and you could end up with significant savings. It was the sheer scale of her coupon fraud operation that caused the FBI to bust a Virginia woman’s coupon fraud operation.

In September 2021, Lori Ann Talens, 41, got slapped with a 12-year prison sentence for running a nation-spanning discount coupon fraud scheme. On top of that, the courts ordered her to pay whopping $31.8 million in restitution to the companies she’d defrauded.

In addition to Talens herself, her husband Pacifico Talens, Jr., 43, also got himself an 87-month sentence. According to the FBI, he knowingly assisted and profited from the scheme, despite not being directly involved in the production of the coupons.

If that seems like a ridiculous sentence for coupon fraud, you’re probably not grasping the sheer scale at which Talens operated. That’s alright, though — even the FBI didn’t initially realize just how big of a fraud they were dealing with.

“It was a different type of case,” summarized special agent Shannon Brill.

Fake coupons found at Talens’ home. Photo courtesy of the FBI.

A Difficult Start

Talens and her fraudulent ways first came to the authorities’ attention when a person who had bought a coupon from her reported her to the Coupon Information Center (CIC). The CIC is a group of consumer goods manufacturers that upholds the validity of discount coupons.

The CIC contacted the FBI and got in touch with postal inspector Jason Thomasson. At that time, though, CIC didn’t have an estimate of how much money Talens’ operation was costing them.

Thomasson informed the CIC that without a loss estimate, there was little to nothing he could do. So, the CIC decided to get an estimate the hard way.

According to the Eastern District of Virginia Attorney’s Office, the CIC started buying coupons from Talens to see just what she was up to. In the end, they bought enough coupons to deliver more than $125,000 in illegitimate savings.

The CIC called Thomasson again, and this time they had a case. In the best buddy cop movie tradition, Thomasson started looking for a partner and paired up with Brill.

Together, they tackled the case, and after some time confirmed Talens as the source of the fake coupons. Then, the cops did what cops do and carried out a search warrant at Talens’ residence.

It was only then that they realized how ridiculously huge her operation was.

‘Coupons in Every Pocket’

When the investigators arrived at Talen’s home, they didn’t find just a few stacks of poorly made fake coupons. The house was filled — and we mean literally filled — with professional-quality counterfeits.

According to Thomasson, they discovered the coupons “in every crevice of the house.”

“There were coupons in every jacket pocket. They were stuffed in her vehicles,” he said.

In total, the coupons were worth more than $1 million. On the Talenses’ computer, the investigators also more than 13,000 design templates for the fakes.

“[Talens] trained herself in the different techniques she needed to manipulate barcodes to make these coupons work,” explained Brill.

Talens could use her templates to make the coupons give her whatever discount she dreamed of at practically any store. Thomasson and Brill said in several cases the discount even went over the product’s retail value.

“She had coupons for $24.99 off a $25 box of diapers. And it would work,” Thomasson said. “You’d have people walking out the door with those diapers for almost nothing.”

Highly Organized Fraud

Talens didn’t make the coupons just for herself, either. According to the investigators, she ran an intricate supply network throughout the country for customers she found on social media.

The FBI discovered Talens used an encrypted messaging app to communicate with her customers. Getting into her delivery network was an entire challenge of its own.

To get in, one of Talens’ existing customers would need to refer you to her. She’d ask you to send her a copy of your ID with evidence that you had previously used counterfeit coupons.

Talens accepted payments through everyday digital payment apps or in cryptocurrencies. Sometimes, she’d exchange coupons for the specialty coupon printing paper that her customers stole for her.

Over three years, she made a comfortable $400,000 off her fake coupons. The Talens couple used the money to fully renovate their home, on top of lavish vacations, dinners, and shopping trips.

Hurting the Little Guy

Talens’ coupons were so meticulously crafted that they were nigh-impossible to tell apart from real ones. But in a way, retailers helped Talens out with their coupon acceptance practices.

According to Thomasson and Brill, retailers usually tell not to question a customer’s coupon. If it scans correctly, just let it go through — and without mistakes, Talens’ coupons would scan.

That would help the coupons to go undetected potentially for months until they ended up at a coupon clearinghouse. The clearinghouses bill the manufacturers for the coupons and pay retailers back so the stores themselves don’t lose money on them.

“If the coupons are rejected, if they are counterfeit, then the retailer doesn’t get paid back for them. But that whole process takes a lot of time,” Brill said.

“By the time a coupon gets identified as being fraudulent or fake, that coupon has already been used who knows how many times.”

The delayed identification process can end up causing significant losses for retailers. And who gets to pay for that?

Of course, it’s us.

“Someone has to eat those losses. It ultimately funnels down to us, the consumers,” Thomasson explained.

Talens might be headed for jail now, but Thomasson and Brill say the investigation isn’t over. Next, they’ll be going after Talens’ customer network.

The FBI was nice enough to even give them a fair warning. The agency said anyone who’s bought Talen’s fake coupons “should not be surprised if they hear from investigators.”

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