Every time a manufacturer develops a new safeguard against fraud, savvy bargain hunters discover a new way to get around it. Since the show Extreme Couponers aired on TLC there has been much talk of the great savings to be had through the use of coupons. Each days dozens more couponing sites and forums pop up all over the web. While surfing these pages trying to learn more about couponing I stumbled across something called “barcode decoding.” Needless to say, I was intrigued. I click on the link and up pop a how to guide to “decode” coupon barcode. The general idea is that you can save extra money and get products that are not listed on the coupon by reading the barcode, as opposed to following the wording on a coupon. Every coupon has a barcode, which is a series of numbers with the information on what product, the value of the coupons and manufacturer’s info encoded within it. The cash register “reads” the barcode and verifies that the correct product is being purchased, the correct value is discounted and that the coupon is not expired.. The picture below shows a diagram of your common barcode and the breakdown of the numbers.
People have discovered that if you learn to “decode” the barcode it allows you to find out whether you can use that coupon on additional products and achieve even better savings then if you simply used the coupon as the wording says. It enables you to see if the coupon will work on a different products within the same family or even any product from said manufacturer. For example lets say you have a coupon for Huggie’s Diapers with a barcode of 5 22222 33344 8. The wording on the coupon states: “5$ off any HUGGIE’S Natural Care diapers, 100 count or higher”. The first digit-5- is the coupon’s Number System Character or NCS. Coupons with a NCS of 5 will automatically double, whereas a 9 will not double, although it can be doubled manually. The next five numbers-22222- are the Manufacturer’s number. This ensures that the coupon is used on only products from the manufacturer that printed the coupon. The next three numbers-333- are the family code. Manufacturers assign family codes to groups of products within the same family. This is part of the coupon that can be decoded to help determine if it can in fact be used on different products. In a family code the number 0 is like a wild card. If you have a family code of 220, then that coupon will work on any product with a family code of 220-229 so it would probably work on any Huggie’s Natural Care diapers regardless of size, etc. A family code of 200 will work on products with a family code of 200-299, so it would probably work on any Huggie’s Natural Care product, not just the diapers. And a family code of 000 will work on any product from that manufacturer, therefore it would work on ANY Huggie’s product, even if it isnt in the Natural Care line. The next two numbers after the family code-44-are the value code, which determines the value of the coupon. Coupons with a 00 or 01(free product code) will almost always be flagged at the store for cashier intervention. You can find tables of all the value codes on various websites. Here is a list of value codes to help you understand better http://www.barcode-us.com/coupon/couponValueChart.html. You may also notice that value codes are never coded for more then 4 items so coupons for buy ten get $$ off will usually work even if you only buy 3 or 4 products. The final number-8-is simply a check number which is a computer generated number that is assigned when the UPC number is purchased for use in their coupon. it is used to help prevent coupon fraud. There are many other “tricks” to decoding a barcode that I am not going to post here simply because I do not want to condone it.
So, with a wealth of information on coupon decoding and respected couponers offering lessons on it in their workshops and how to guides, it brings forth the question of whether or not barcode decoding is breaking the law or if it is acceptable to do. Many well established great coupon sites are all for barcode reading, even posting tutorials and how to guides. Some even have a “coupon decoder” on the website where you can enter the coupons barcode and other information and it will tell you whether it can be used on additional products and if so which ones will work. Many people will argue that the company knows that it can be done and should simply make the bar codes more specific. It is not that easy, however. Manufacturer’s cannot always code the coupon for specific products. People like coupons that allow some flexibility and in order for the manufacturer to provide coupons available for more then one specific product in one size of a specific type they must trust that people will rely on the terms written on the coupon. A barcode can only fit so much information, it cannot fit a compete sentence or paragraph, which is why that is written on the coupon. The words are basically the terms of a contract between you, the coupon user and the company providing the coupon. Mistakes are made, even by huge manufacturers, when a coupon you are using “beeps” because it was coded incorrectly you want them to call the manager and argue that they should take it anyways. Well, a mistake is a mistake and it doesn’t make it OK just because it favors you! .Another common argument is that if it wasn’t alright to do then the coupon would not scan through or the cashier would not put it through anyways after it beeps. Well just because you can do something doesn’t mean that it is right. Once again the manufacturers trust you to abide by the written policy. Many store rely on fast checkouts for customer satisfaction and don’t take the time to read over every single coupon. What you are essentially doing is playing the system to your advantage. Many people claim that they called the company and were told it was okay. The store made coupons for one product 10$ off and another 50cents of for a reason. Also, just because the manufacturer may not necessarily be to concerned about it, the store definitely will when the do not get reimbursed.
The bottom line is that barcode decoding is FRAUD. When people take advantage of something like this is eventually ruins a good thing for everyone. There are plenty of savings to be had with coupons without gaming the system even further. Just because something is possible, do not make it right. It is because of these things that stores are giving us, the consumers who ARE using our coupons correctly, a hard time. We freak out when a store refuses a coupon, but with people so desperate to make an extra buck these days, who can blame them. Cashier’s have been forced to pay for these people’s indecencies and could even lose their jobs over it. Also, manufacturers put coupons out to help promote new products and to give their consumers that use their products a deal. They do not HAVE to put coupons out at all. We think it is okay because we don’t see the consequences. We see it as a huge company with all the money in the world, what is an extra dollar to them. Well it is simple mathematics. What if one million people all scammed that company out of just one dollar. You see? People need to understand that this is not acceptable. Especially newbies like myself who read about it on a respectable couponing site and aren’t experienced enough to question it. There are more then enough ways to get things for free, why mess up a good thing? It only takes one a few people to ruin something for everyone. All these sites suggest going to the U-Scan where you scan it yourself to use the coupons they have “decoded”, do you really want to risk the embarrassment when it beeps and the cashier comes over to check and realizes you are committing fraud? For fifty cents, no less? Are you that desperate to save a couple bucks that you are willing to risk being arrested and banned from your favorite store? Fraud is fraud, whether it is for one dollar or one million dollars. The charge is the same, it is a criminal offense that you will be prosecuted for, and it is not taken lightly in the court of law.
At the end of the day, only you can decide what you are what yu are comfortable with and what level of dishonesty you are willing to accept. I personally take coupon ethics very seriously because I am grateful for the companies and stores that allow us all these amazing deals and I don’t want to screw that up. I have provided you with the information you need to make a more informed choice on whether or not coupon decoding is acceptable. It is up to you to decide how much your integrity is worth. I know mine is worth more then a few dollars.