A counterfeit coupon bust grabbed headlines last week.

On July 10, three women in Phoenix were arrested and charged with illegal enterprise, forgery, counterfeiting and operating fraudulent schemes. For more than four years, the women created coupons for free products and sold them on several websites, including eBay, according to authorities.

More than $25 million in counterfeit coupons were seized in the bust, along with four residences, 21 vehicles, including luxury cars, an RV and a 40-foot speedboat, and 20 guns.

The police also seized 12 bank accounts, one account containing more than $2 million.

The counterfeit offers included free boxes of diapers, multipacks of toilet paper and dog food. At the time of the bust, the counterfeiters' main site, savvyshoppersite.com, which has no relation to the Charleston Savvy Shopper column or website or the Savvy Shopper free coupon magazine, offered counterfeit free-product coupons from 40 different manufacturers.

If you've ever seen the website, you might wonder how anyone could believe the coupons were legitimate. Shoppers were required to spend at least $50 on coupons at a time, pay for orders with a Moneypak (a prepaid debit card) and have a referral from a current customer.

The site also advised, “Please do not share this information with people that you don't actually know. This includes forums and any public viewing areas or websites.”

The site along with a spinoff site offered tips for shoppers on how to deal with rejection at the checkout. It said to avoid big-box retailers (since, according to them, smaller chain and independent stores are more likely to take the counterfeit coupons).

Since many cashiers know to look for a security hologram on free-product coupons, the accused counterfeiters even advertised on one of their websites that they'd add a holographic sticker to your fake coupon for an additional $3.

I have always advised against purchasing coupons online, whether on eBay or another coupon resale site. If you buy coupons online, you never know what you're going to get.

Bud Miller is executive director of the Coupon Information Center, an industry watchdog group that assisted in this counterfeit investigation.

“This case clearly demonstrates the dangers of purchasing coupons on the Internet, whether it is from independent websites, email or from online auctions,” Miller said.

Learn more about couponing at jillcataldo.com. Email your own couponing victories and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.