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Stores call in police as voucher fraud by shoppers booms

Stores are calling in the police to crack down on shoppers who are misusing money-off vouchers.

The big supermarkets and product manufacturers are deluging consumers with vouchers and coupons to tempt them to spend. But this has led to a boom in voucher fraud thanks to computer technology which allows coupons to be copied and printed. Genuine coupons that should be used only once are also being used again and again.

It has emerged that one woman was cautioned by police on Friday after she copied a money-off coupon and used it several times in a Sainsbury’s store. She created copies of a Unilever coupon, using different names on each occasion, which cut £150 off the cost of her shopping at the supermarket in Wrexham.

A decision by stores to switch to self-service tills has opened the door to voucher fraud because this does away with staff checks at the till. This has allowed customers to scan a voucher and then retain it to use again instead of giving it up.

In July, a Cambridgeshire couple pleaded guilty to reusing a Tesco money-off coupon dozens of times in what is believed to be the first prosecution for voucher fraud. The Tesco Clubcard voucher for £17.50 was genuine and had been sent to Nigel and Penny Ward by the supermarket. However, they used it 62 times at self-service checkouts in seven Tesco stores. Each time it deducted £17.50 from their bill. By the time they were arrested, the couple had effectively obtained free groceries to the value of £1,085. They were traced via their Clubcard details and sentenced to a 12-month community order under supervision and ordered to pay £250 each in compensation to Tesco. The couple claimed to have fallen on hard times caused by illness. The cases represent how stores are getting tough on shoppers who abuse the voucher system.

The total value of vouchers distributed to customers each year is estimated at more than £500million. The Institute of Sales Promotion, which represents the interests of companies that support money-off voucher schemes and other marketing campaigns, puts fraud at more than £300,000 a year.

It is aware of one case where a major multi-national lost £80,000 through voucher fraud. A £2-off voucher was distributed by email to a mailing list of people who had registered as interested in a particular, high-value, food and drink product. Some 8,000 coupons were printed off by customers. However, more than 50,000 were redeemed through supermarkets. In a second case, a small start-up company in the food and drink sector was hit with a bill in excess of £40,000 after a money-off coupon was massively over-redeemed. In a third case, a consumer goods company was hit for more than £150,000 because someone had faked a money-off coupon and replaced a barcode worth 30p with one worth around £6.

The institute’s chief executive, Annie Swift, said the situation is so bad that some big brands have considered dropping coupons.

‘Our members have reported a massive surge in coupon misuse and in some cases plain fraud,’ she said. ‘Money-off coupons save consumers around £500million a year. That’s a lot, particularly when family shopping budgets are being squeezed. If companies stop issuing these coupons because of the potentially criminal activities of a small number of greedy people, it’s consumers who will suffer. Anyone contemplating misusing money-off coupons should know that they can be caught, they can be prosecuted and they can end up with a criminal record.’

The Wrexham case was highlighted by the consumer website Its founder, Martin Lewis, said: ‘Lying or misleading firms is fraud and we strongly caution against it.’ A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: ‘We can confirm a customer was arrested at our Wrexham store on Friday. 'We have internal systems in place to monitor coupon usage and we always work closely with the relevant authorities to ensure incidents like this are rare.’

A huge voucher culture has emerged in tandem with the biggest squeeze on living standards in more than 60 years. All sorts of retailers offer money-off vouchers, while manufacturers such as Unilever, which makes products as diverse as Persil and Flora, have their own coupons. And City experts believe as many as 200 voucher websites operate in the UK.

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