Officials detailed how a Virginia Beach woman was able to make bogus coupons and scammed retailers out of $32 million.
The scope of the fraud that Lori Ann Talens, 41, masterminded was so “staggering” that the massive sum of her theft was a “conservative estimate,” according to information released by the FBI last week.
Talens pleaded guilty in April to mail, wire, and health care fraud, in connection with the scheme. She was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.
The modern-day Frank Abagnale — whose check fraud scam was highlighted in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” — was also ordered to pay $31.8 million in restitution at her September sentencing.
Talens, who has a background in marketing and strong computer design skills, was able to counterfeit coupons for “almost any grocery or drug store product and to make it for whatever value off she wanted,” federal authorities said. Designs on her seized computer allowed her to create fake coupons for some 13,000 products, according to the FBI.
“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.”
Talens sold her fake coupons to a “large” group of subscribers through social media, who paid her about $400,000 over three years, authorities said. She spent the cash on “high-end home renovations,” including a new kitchen, sunroom, and in-ground pool, while her family used her coupons to spend virtually zilch on vacations and shopping trips, according to the FBI.
The fake coupons would go undiscovered for months after traveling from stores to central coupon clearinghouses that bill the product manufacturer and repay the stores.
“If the coupons are rejected, if they are counterfeit, then the retailer doesn’t get paid back for them,” said FBI Special Agent Shannon Brill. “But that whole process takes a lot of time. By the time a coupon gets identified as being fraudulent or fake, that coupon has already been used who knows how many times.”
After a painstaking forensic investigation, officials got a search warrant for her house, which turned up more than $1 million in phony vouchers, the FBI said.
Investigators said that when they served the search warrant, they found fake coupons —worth more than $1 million — in every crevice of the house.
“There were coupons in every jacket pocket; they were stuffed in her vehicles,” said Thomasson.
Talens’ husband, Pacifico Talens Jr., 43 was also sentenced to seven months in prison, according to the release.
The investigation into the massive scheme remains open, as agents speak with her subscribers.
Officials said the real victim of Talens’ fraud was not the retailors, but their customers.
“Someone has to eat those losses,” said Thomasson. “It ultimately funnels down to us, the consumers.”
“Anyone who buys anything will pay for those crimes,” agreed Brill.