Monday, 19 August 2013

UPDATE of Phoenix Women Arrested for Million Dollar Coupon fraud Ring

Robin Ramirez

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Tens of millions of dollars worth of counterfeit coupons are out of circulation, and now, so is the woman charged with running the whole operation. 41-year-old Robin Ramirez, who was set to stand trial for operating a multi-million dollar counterfeit coupon ring in Phoenix, has changed her pleas to guilty, on charges of counterfeiting, fraud and illegal control of an enterprise.


One additional charge of forgery has been dropped. This development comes several months after Ramirez’s two co-defendants changed their own pleas. 43-year-old Amiko Fountain and 54-year-old Marilyn Johnson faced felony charges of forgery, fraud and counterfeiting. Under separate plea agreements reached in November, they each agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of counterfeiting. They also, notably, agreed to testify against Ramirez in her upcoming trial. Court documents reviewed by Coupons in the News show that Ramirez’s plea agreement was accepted by the court on February 25. Prosecutors are recommending a sentence of between 9 months and two years on the counterfeiting charge, and supervised probation on the other charges. Fountain and Johnson face sentences of six to 18 months. All have been ordered to pay restitution “to any and all persons and businesses associated with this case, for any and all losses incurred… in an amount not to exceed $5 million.” The case came to light last July, when Phoenix police announced the arrest of the three women, and the confiscation of about $40 million worth of counterfeit coupons. Investigators say Ramirez ran the now-defunct website SavvyShopperSite.com, which purported to sell legitimate high-value, often free-item, coupons for dozens of products at any one time. One coupon available for sale at the time of the women’s arrest offered a free bag of Eukanuba pet food, worth up to $50. A subsequent notice sent out by the Coupon Information Corporation showed how that coupon, and others like it, had been altered from their original form. At least one counterfeit Eukanuba coupon, the CIC said, was based on an actual, far less valuable, coupon for $1 off Pringles. New text, images and bar codes were added to turn it into a legitimate-looking coupon for $50 worth of free dog food. Police say Ramirez sent coupons overseas to be reproduced and counterfeited in mass quantities, and they were sent back to her to sell on eBay and on her own website. They say she sold coupons through multiple eBay accounts, and invited select shoppers to buy more at the SavvyShopperSite. “You must have a referral to shop with us,” the website read. “We caution you to protect this information and only share with trusted and honest people who will not abuse or misuse these items,” it continued ominously. “This means, please do not share this information with people that you don’t actually know.” With warnings like that, police suspect many people who bought coupons from the site may have known they were counterfeit. Or, if they knew something seemed fishy, they didn’t want to question it – as some customers later admitted (read: “‘It Was Too Good To Be True, But It Was Working’”). Investigators also said they spoke with several people who were planning on setting up their own websites, buying and reselling coupons provided by Ramirez. That’s how Johnson got involved. She operated her own site, selling some of the same counterfeit coupons offered on the SavvyShopperSite, and she also helped to pack and ship orders to customers. Police say Fountain also assisted Ramirez, in some cases by placing hologram stickers on the fraudulent coupons in order to help make them appear legitimate. At the time of the women’s arrests, police revealed that Ramirez had a dozen different bank accounts, and just one of those accounts showed that she had earned $2 million over the past year. Proceeds from all the sales apparently went toward things like cars, weapons and a speedboat, all of which police seized. Records indicated Ramirez had allegedly been selling coupons since at least 2007, so the $40 million worth that was seized was just the tip of the iceberg. And the site might still be selling bogus coupons today, had the manufacturers themselves and the Coupon Information Corporation not convinced Phoenix police that this was serious business – costing companies hundreds of millions of dollars. Procter & Gamble, among other companies, knew about the counterfeits for years. With the assistance of private investigators, they managed to track down the owners of the SavvyShopperSite. As lead investigator Sgt. David Lake recalled, his initial reaction to P&G’s plea for law enforcement to get involved was, “Coupons? What?” He soon learned the magnitude of the fraud, and began building a case against the women over the course of eight weeks. The companies’ own detective work, he said, “took a lot of resources that quite frankly, we didn’t have.” Indeed, law enforcement officials in other areas have felt similarly powerless to put a stop to such cases. In September, the small town of Sitka, Alaska reported a rash of counterfeit coupons (read: “Counterfeiters Spoil Couponing in Alaska”), and all police could do was issue a public warning. “For us, trying to prosecute a source would be nearly impossible unless the Feds were interested in helping, which is not likely,” a police sergeant lamented at the time to Coupons in the News. Sgt. Lake of Phoenix also had no illusions that this case would put an end to coupon counterfeiting. “We’ll plug up one hole, and it will come out of another,” he said. But with tens of millions of dollars worth of fake coupons off the market, and the women responsible for distributing them now heading to jail.
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