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Virginia woman gets 12 years in prison for one of the biggest coupon scams in U.S. history

Federal prosecutors said retailers lost $31.8 million due to the phony discounts created by Lori Ann Talens.

A Virginia Beach woman was sentenced to 12 years in prison for running one of biggest coupon counterfeiting rings in U.S. history that led to more than $31.8 million in retail loss, authorities said.

Lori Ann Talens, 41, ran the scheme from April 2017 through May 2020, and pleaded guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud and health care fraud before she was sentenced Tuesday by a federal judge in Norfolk.

Her husband, 43-year-old Pacifico Talens Jr., previously pleaded guilty for his role in supporting the scam and was sentenced to seven years behind bars.

“This massive counterfeit coupon scheme harmed consumers, retailers, and manufacturers nationwide, and the economy at large," Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Raj Parekh said in a statement.

While most coupon campaigns have a unique bar code, the individual pieces of paper shoppers might clip from a newspaper are not distinctive, according to Bud Miller, executive director of the industry group Coupon Information Center, which looks out for fake vouchers.

Unlike, for example, tickets to a major sports event, it's virtually impossible for organizers of a coupon campaign to print hundreds of thousands or millions of vouchers, each with a unique bar code.

And that level of uniformity opens the door for skilled counterfeiters like Talens — with a background in graphic arts and marketing — to recreate coupons, according to Miller.

"Lori Ann Talens had an extensive knowledge of how point-of-sale systems operate so she really had, in one person, all the of the talents necessary to create counterfeit coupons," Miller told NBC News on Friday.

The couple used Facebook and Telegram "to find groups of coupon enthusiasts and sell them counterfeit coupons," prosecutors said.

Lori Ann Talens used the online name “MasterChef" and made counterfeit vouchers that "were virtually indistinguishable from authentic coupons and were often created with inflated values, far in excess of what an authentic coupon would offer, in order to receive items from retail for free or for a greatly reduced price," according to a prosecution statement.

The biggest victims of the scam included makers and sellers of of Kimberly-Clark paper products ($8.99 million), Proctor & Gamble household goods ($2.8 million), food giant Unilever ($2.5 million) and Henkel Corporation cleaning supplies ($1.7 million).

While manufacturers and retailers are developing new technologies to weed out fake coupons, the very nature of the business makes full-proof safeguards out of reach.

"Coupons themselves are a mass distribution," Miller said. "The mass distribution is the most effective, cheapest way to get these things to millions of people at once. It's very difficult to do, just the printing process only is a challenge."

Lawyers for both Lori Ann Talens and Pacifico Talens Jr. could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday.

The wife is ordered to report to prison no later than Oct. 31, while her co-defendant husband must surrender by Tuesday.

Lori Ann Talens was sentenced just as a new movie about coupon scams is hitting big screens and a streaming TV service.

The Kristen Bell comedy "Queenpins" is a fictionalized comedy inspired by a trio of Phoenix women who produced and passed fake coupons worth millions of dollars.