VIRGINIA BEACH (WAVY) — A Virginia Beach woman who took part in a more than $31 million counterfeit coupon fraud scheme, one prosecutors said was one of the largest coupon fraud operations ever discovered in the U.S., had more than $1 million in coupons “in every crevice of the house” when it was searched, the FBI says.
The FBI shared the new details about Lori Ann Talens’ operation in a release on Thursday. Talens, 41, and her husband Pacifico Talens, 43, were just sentenced last month and ordered to pay $31.8 million in restitution in the multi-year scheme.
Lori Ann, the mastermind of the scheme who went by “MasterChef” got 12 years, while Pacifico, who would help ship the coupons to subscribers the pair found on social media groups, was sentenced to 7 years.
The large subscriber operation lasted about three years, from April 2017 to May 2020, and Talens was paid about $400,000 by those subscribers in total. The service required customers to send in a copy of their ID and provide evidence they had used counterfeit coupons before, in order make sure they accepted some risk, the FBI says. All communication was on encrypted apps and new members could only be allowed if they were referred by another member.
And Talens herself would also use the coupons to buy everything from high-end home renovations such as a new kitchen, sunroom and in-ground pool to trips, shopping and more.
The FBI says she paid for little or nothing for the products she consumed, and the $31.8 million restitution was only a conservative estimate of how much Talens and her associates stole from retailers. And there were deep discounts, much more than your typical $1 off, with an immense volume of coupons overall.
“She had coupons for $24.99 off a $25 box of diapers. And it would work,” said Postal Inspector Jason Thomasson “And you’d have people walking out the door with those diapers for almost nothing.”
Thomasson says when he was alerted by the Coupon Information Corporation (who was tipped by one of Talens’ customers) he had no idea how big the fraud scheme would be. He ended up partnering in the case with FBI Special Agent Shannon Brill.
Brill said store cashiers are typically not asked to question coupons from customers. “That’s not their job.”
Basically if the coupon scanned correctly, the store would honor it, and it could be a while before a coupon is recognized as fraudulent. Coupons usually got from stores to central coupon clearinghouses, which collect them and then bill the manufacturer for the value.
Talens, who had strong computer design skills and background knowledge in marketing, could manipulate barcodes and make “indistinguishable from authentic coupons” for almost any grocery or drug store product — and set the discount price. Some were even more than the price of an item.
Eventually authorities served a search warrant on the Talens’ home and found more than $1 million of coupons that were stashed, as well as more than 13,000 coupon designs on her computer.
“There were coupons in every jacket pocket; they were stuffed in her vehicles,” Thomasson said.
Authorities said that while the scheme may seem insignificant overall, with it targeting large retailers over the course of years, the effects can hurt the consumer.
“Someone has to eat those losses,” Thomasson said. “It ultimately funnels down to us, the consumers.”
While the Talens are in prison, the FBI says the case isn’t over yet. Those involved in the scheme could hear from investigators.