Skeptical Shopper: Using Online Coupons? Watch for Scams--and Savings

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Coupon clipping no longer involves wielding scissors and getting newspaper ink on your hands. According to a survey conducted by HarrisInteractive for the shopping site, 62 percent of consumers seek out coupons for online retailers, and 30 percent will not make a purchase if they can't find a coupon from a particular retailer.

As the hectic holiday shopping season goes into full swing, knowing how to uncover the best on­­line coupons--and how to avoid the scams--will save you both money and stress. (As their popularity attests, online coupons have been around for a while, but these days the stress factor is probably a bit higher.)

A variety of Websites are dedicated to online coupon clipping.,, and are among my favorites because they're easy to browse and they provide coupons for just about everything you could want. Some sites have newsletters; subscribe, and you'll be alerted to the most recently added deals. Many also have forums, which is a boon for finding the best coupons. The members of these forums are also good at sniffing out scams on the Web and alerting others, according to a representative from Still, a few untrustworthy sites are out there--so you must know the warning signs of a fraudulent coupon before snatching it up.

Some Coupon Rules

First off, never pay for a coupon. Ac­­cording to the Coupon Information Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting coupon fraud, selling coupons violates manufacturers' policies.

Also, be wary of sites that demand you share personal info, such as your name, ad­­dress, and account numbers, to redeem coupons. One scam a couple of years ago claimed that you could receive a $50 discount from a popular online clothing re­­tailer if you filled out a few forms. These online forms asked for personal information and even required you to sign up for a trial membership with a CD club. The consumers who were looking for a sweet deal ended up getting slapped with all kinds of excessive charges for products they weren't aware of buying. Reputable coupon sites, such as the ones named above, ask only for your e-mail address to create an account--and that's it.

The Better Business Bureau recommends checking whether the coupon is being offered directly by the store or by a third party such as a partner or affiliate. If it's the latter, after you find out the partner or affiliate's name, look up its reputation with customers on the BBB's online company directory (it's free of charge). That information should tell you whether consumers were scammed in the past.

If a coupon site has lots of broken links, expired deals, and old content, you probably should skip it. Look for sites with frequently updated news and deals, editorial content, and an active forum or a blog.

When you're sure your coupon is legit, check for restrictions such as dates of expiration and a required minimum purchase to receive a discount. (Many coupons that promise free shipping have such minimums.) If you still have doubts about your coupon's validity, call the company to which the coupon applies, describe its value, and say where you found it. The company should be able to verify whether the coupon is the real deal.

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