PHOENIX -- Authorities took three women into custody, raided three homes and seized valuable property on Tuesday as part of what police are calling a "first of its kind" case in the United States.
According to investigators, more than 40 of the Nation’s largest manufacturers have fallen victim to a new kind of coupon forgery and counterfeiting.
Approximately 4 years ago, extremely high quality copies of manufacturer’s coupons began to surface in the United States from an unknown source.
The companies that were targeted in this apparent scam, in conjunction with the Coupon Information Corporation (CIC) hired private investigators to find out where the coupons were being sold in the United States.
These investigators discovered most of the fake coupons were being used in Arizona. Investigators also found that the coupons were being sold through the website, Savvyshoppersite.com. The site was doing business as Savvy Shopper, but is in no way related to the local consumer magazine.
The Phoenix Police Department working in conjunction with the private sector, members of the FBI Internet crimes unit and internal resources, put a case together to prosecute the people behind this alleged fraudulent coupon site.
"This is an international investigation because we know that the coupons we're talking about were not manufactured here in the United States but they were shipped here and then distributed via the Internet and other media outlets," said Officer James Holmes with the Phoenix Police Dept.
One of the houses that police raided today is at 36406 North 29th Avenue. Another house is located about one mile away at 35509 North 31st Drive. That is northeast of Interstate 17 and Carefree Highway. The third home raided by police is in South Phoenix.
Police seized boxes of coupons, vehicles, guns and other property. Investigators say those coupons are worth about $25 million dollars.
Police say the scope of the investigation and the economic impact are massive with hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.
"We're talking about anywhere from $400 to $600 million in loss," said Holmes. "This is to American companies who produced American products and hire American citizens."
According to police the ringleader of the illegal enterprise was Robin Ramirez, 40. They also arrested Marilyn Johnson, 54 and Amiko (Amy) Fountain, 42. Johnson and Fountain are described as assistants.
"She [Ramirez] would bring in these coupons from overseas in large quantities, quantities we never could imagine and she would sell them on her website for about 50 percent of face value," said Sgt. Davide Lake with the Phoenix Police Dept.
The Coupon Information Corporation is calling this the largest counterfeit coupon case the industry has ever seen.
"They are variations, reproductions of what were at one point legitimate coupons," said Bud Miller with the Coupon Information Corporation.
So the coupons often worked and as a result manufacturers lost millions.
Miller said consumers should never pay money for coupons.
"If you're a consumer out there and you purchased coupons from this website you certainly should not use them. You are subject to arrest," said Miller.
Holmes said that people who knowingly use the fake coupons are committing a Class 6 felony.
The three suspects in custody are facing multiple charges including operating an illegal enterprise, forgery, money laundering, and counterfeiting.
Police confiscated $2 million worth of assets that included $240,000 in vehicles, 22 guns, a 40-foot speed boat and other assets.