Thursday, May 29, 2008

CVS Fraud?

One responder to my recent Wise Bread post about CVSing had questions about the ethics of the CVS strategies that I and many others have been using. A comment on another Wise Bread post I wrote when I first started CVSing came out and said what I was doing is fraudulent.

I promised to explain here how you don't have to cheat or do anything makes you feel guilty to work the CVS system.

Here is the comment from Tammy, followed by my responses:

... I am concerned with your article on CVS because I feel it might be a slight misrepresentation of the truth. You are telling your readers that you basically spend no money at CVS and get several items you need for free. I am a member of several coupon websites that have cracked down on their coupon ethics
because people have been abusing programs offered through CVS.

I know of several people that have multiple cards (which is now considered a violation of the terms of CVS due to the "one per household" rule).My question to you is are you getting these deals completely ethcially, guilt free, and with absolutely no
coupon fraud whatsoever? If you are, -and I really hope you are- I would absoultely love to hear about how you work your CVS magic and possibly use your information to refine my own CVS'ing skills.
CVS did save me a lot of money but the time it took away from my family, the guilt I felt due to rationalizing many aspects of the programs rule, and the actual money I did have to fork out
ultimatley weighed heavy on my decision to tone it down and stop CVSing. If you could personally respond to me or even write another detailed article with CVS
scenerios, etc (for what you are planning to do this week for example) that would really help me to determind if CVS is right for my family and our budget.
Thank you

Great questions, Tammy. I'll start with the use of coupons. From what I have read online, coupon policies are set store-by-store. For example, one CVS I sometimes visit does not allow shoppers to combine two coupons for money off your total bill (i.e. You can't combine the $3/$15 coupon from the Washington Post with a $5/$25 coupon that printed out at the register.), while my neighborhood CVS has no problem with combining those.

I really feel that it's the responsibility of the store and its employees to keep up on and interpret the coupon policy. If I'm not sure if all the coupons I have will be accepted, I'll ask or just hand them all over and let the cashier sort them out. Maybe some would consider it unethical not to ascertain for certain whether every single coupon is acceptable before handing them over, but I just don't consider it my responsibility. At any rate, I think I have a good understanding of my local store's policy so I don't often run into problems. OK, I did once or twice fail to buy $15 worth of stuff and still used a $3/$15 off coupon, which I got away with. Just for you, Tammy, I promise I will not do that ever again.

I'm not sure what you're referring to when you say coupon websites have "cracked down on their ethics because people have been abusing programs offered through CVS." I'm going to make a couple of guesses, but please let me know if you're referring to something I don't cover.

One thing I have read about is that when CVS emailed a coupon to some customers, the coupon would get shared online and everyone in the couponing world would be printing and using that coupon. I have seen several sites post that CVS directly asked them to remove coupons or stop posting them.

Oh, and I saw some coupons ($10/$50, etc.) posted in an online forum that were not valid at all. They were supposedly coupons that were going to get emailed out sometime in May, but everyone who tried them found that they didn't work. I did print some out at first, thinking they would be usable, but when I read about the problems I brought one in and asked the cashier about it. She tried to scan it, said it didn't work, and that was the end of that.

Also, it seems that CVS has refined its coupons lately, making emailed coupons beep if they're not used on the specific account they were sent to, and adding wording to their coupons to make it clear that the $x/$x coupons cannot be "stacked" with other coupons of the same kind. It seems that in the past some stores allowed you to use a $10/$50, a $5/$25 and a $3/$15 coupon all on the same $50 transaction. Sounds great to me, but I think the corporation clarified the coupon text shortly after I started CVSing so I never found out if my local stores would have been ok with that.

Again, I certainly don't think there is anything "unethical" about people who used a whole lot of those coupons together -- it's really the business of CVS and the store taking the coupons to determine what they want to allow.

I have used $4/$20 coupons that were emailed to me, and I have also used the $5/$15 coupon that I got for signing up for Wellness360 (some people online reported that some CVS locations were not accepting this coupon, but every CVS I visited took it with no problem). The Wellness360 coupon expired, and I'm currently using the $3/$15 coupon that I got from the online version of The Washington Post.

In all cases, these coupons were not set up as one-time only print coupons. I printed many, many copies and used them freely, and (except for the ones emailed directly to me) handed out copies to friends, relatives and even cashiers and people behind me in line.

I think they do say "one per customer" on them, but it's my understanding that that usually means PER TRANSACTION. Remember that all these transactions are on my CVS card, and CVS is perfectly capable of limiting how many times I use a particular perk if they want to. There is also software that allows companies to offer coupons that will only print once or twice, such as that used by Coupons.com and Colgate.

So I certainly don't worry that CVS didn't mean for me to print multiple copies of these coupons and use them again and again. If a company wants to control how people use coupons it issues, the burden is on the company to make those rules very clear and take measures to enforce them. I've used these coupons in back-to-back transactions with the same cashiers without any complaint from them or the managers, so I don't believe there is any problem there.

That's all I can think of in terms of possible coupon fraud, but please let me know if there is something you've heard of that I haven't covered.

Now, in terms of multiple Extra Care accounts. It's certainly not necessary to have more than one account to use the program successfully. However, I will admit that I use three accounts: one in my name, one that belongs to my mother (who lives in a different household), and one in my husband's name. I had not heard about this "one per household" rule, and I have always been completely aboveboard with CVS about what I am doing, whether I am talking to a cashier, a manger or the ExtraCare customer service.

I once emailed Extra Care and specifically explained to them that I had lost my husband's Extra Care card along with 9 ECBs we had earned on that account. What I didn't realize at the time was that the card I'd been using as my husband's was actually one I'd picked up at CVS without ever submitting the form. When they couldn't find any account under the name and number I gave, they very generously credited the lost ECBs I reported to my account. The customer service rep obviously didn't mind at all that we each had a card in our names or that I was using his card.

So maybe some would consider my use of these three cards unethical, but I am not losing any sleep over it. If CVS wants to start enforcing this rule, I'm sure I will hear about it and I would have no problem shutting down my husband's account. As for my mom's, she uses it herself but she doesn't want to be bothered with all the couponing and such, so I use her card, with her permission, to generate ECBs and buy things for her and for my own household.

But if your ethics dictate otherwise, by all means, stick to just one card. It's easier to keep things organized that way anyway.

I'll address the point you raise, Tammy, about taking time away from the family, as well as one other point from another comment, and then I'll link to some of my specific deal scenarios that I have already posted on this blog.

I think you're right: CVSing does take a lot of time, and it's the one reason why I cannot say for sure that I'll still be doing it, say, a year from now. I tend to get quite wrapped up in plotting scenarios, which is actually a fun thing for me when I'm stuck nursing the baby to sleep or when I'm swimming laps. It's like doing a sudoku or crossword for me. But I also spend a lot of time going through coupons and dragging my kids through CVS. Then I spend a lot of time on the weekend adding up my transactions for this blog, but that's another matter since I am hoping to use this blog to generate income once I get more traffic and ads going.

Now that I am getting pretty good stocks of many household necessities, and now that the intial thrill has cooled for me, I see myself CVSing more periodically. For example if no more coupons turn up after the current ones expire in a week, that's a good time to take a break.

The last ethics question I'll address involves returning items. In the comments section of my original Wise Bread post on CVSing, I mentioned that I had returned some items, and a commenter (not sure if it was the same Tammy?) stated that I was doing something unethical. I'm not sure if she thought I was making fraudulent returns or what, so let me just cover the kinds of returns I will and will not make, and how I understand CVS's policies on this. If you're the same Tammy and I don't address your concerns from that post, please let me know.

I occasionally return items to CVS, usually because I bought something expecting it to pay ECBs and it did not. Sometimes (this happened more when I was just starting out) I buy the wrong size or variety of a product, and once in awhile I'll buy something that I've heard would pay ECBs as an unadvertised deal, but it didn't work. Or, I'll fail to realize that I have reached my limit for that item.

There is of course nothing fraudulent or wrong about returning items that you bought but decided you don't want to keep, for whatever reason. I try to keep returns to a minimum, because I don't want to become a pest to the staff at my store, and also I do wonder if CVS might flag my account for SUSPECTED fraud if they noticed a ton of returns all the time.

What I do not do is return items for which I have received ECBs. Interestingly, it is possible to return the stuff you bought for ECBs, but keep and spend the ECBs. It seems like that should be against the rules, but I don't know if it is or not. It could be that CVS has just not figured out the logistics of invalidating ECBs if the item is returned.

This is how I know it's possible, though: Once I was overcharged for an ECB-paying item. I brought it back the next day with the receipt and showed the cashier the error. She promptly returned the item, gave me cash in return, and then asked if she should ring it up again. And one other time, I brought in a coupon I had forgotten to use for an ECB-paying item, and the cashier did the same thing: Did a regular return, then sold it back to me, and in fact I earned ECBs AGAIN for re-buying the same item.

Was this fraud? I have no idea. I told the cashier exactly what I wanted to do, and that's how the transaction turned out. Again, I don't see it as my responsibility to research the fine print of CVS's rules to make sure its cashiers are doing their jobs properly. On the other hand, I have avoided returning anything else that paid me ECBs, because it does not seem right and I don't doubt that if I did so systematically, CVS would call me on it. After all, they have all my transaction records on their computer.

How you get paid for returns is another policy that is set store by store. For example, my local store used to have the policy of giving cash for returns, even if you paid for the item with little or no cash and instead used ECBs and coupons. They got a new manager and now their policy is to give only gift cards, not cash, if you didn't pay cash for the item to begin with. This seems quite fair to me, actually it's quite generous. Other stores have the policy that they will not pay you any more for a return than the actual cash you paid. Obviously, I don't bring my returns to those stores.

Because of my store's generous policy, I currently have a couple of gift cards that I use to pay the $1 or so not covered by ECBs and coupons each time I make a transaction. In this way, I can honestly say that I paid NOTHING out of pocket this week.

I'm not advising that people buy things with coupons, then purposely return them in order to get gift cards. I don't know if that could be considered fraud, but it does seem like abusing CVS's generosity in this area, and it would also probably annoy the staff if you are constantly buying things only to return them. Yet, gift cards are pretty handy since you can't use coupons to pay the tax and odd amounts.

So I recommend using prescription transfers as the total guilt-free way to get gift cards. Periodically CVS prints a coupon for a $25 gift card with a prescription. Between the kids and me, we have had a few prescriptions this year, so last time I got one filled, I purposely went somewhere other than CVS. Then on the refill, I did a transfer. I already collected one $25 gift card this way and plan to collect a second one tomorrow. Spending just a few dollars a week, a $25 gift card will last me more than a month.

OK, this has gotten very long, so I won't post any specific deal scenarios tonight. Here are all the deals I did last week. As you'll see on the summary, I spent $5.96 out of pocket last week, mostly on tax. For that money, I bought 3 gallons of milk, a birthday present for a party my 4-year-old attended, a bunch of my grandma's preferred brand of toothpaste and air freshener for her, on-sale ice cream, paper clips, potting soil, hair dye, toilet paper, and a bunch of crap I didn't need that I will donate to the shelter. Considering that the milk alone would cost $9 or more if I'd paid full price ANYWHERE, and that the CVS is the most convenient store to my house, I'd say I did pretty well.

This week, I'll take home less stuff because there just aren't that many deals available, but I will literally have spent zero out of pocket due to my gift cards. And next week will be the same, zero out of pocket.


3 comments:

Tammy Hook said...

Wow! First of all, I think you are an awesome writer. Second of all, thank you so much for explaining your point of view in such detail. It really comforts my anxiety about CVSing to hear from an actual person and not just reading a deal list put out by a couponing website. I totally agree with your points and it really validated something for me: I'm not being fradulant! You are so right on that CVS has the ability to track our cards and stop being so generous with coupons at any time. So, if they think I'm being unethical, they should have told me by now (considering I have been CVSing for over a year now.

It amazes me that they don't have a corporate policy and each individual store has the ability to make up their own rules. I guess the lack of consistency frustrates me the most. I have to apologize here for questioning your ethics so harshly. I am sorry if I came across as rude or accusatory. I suppose I am really just frustrated with a corporation that doesn't have a consistent policy from store to store. At some of my local stores (California), I feel like they are constantly watching me like I am trying to steal or something. Yet when I visit my parents in Oklahoma, the cashiers are singing my praises and asking me for coupon advice!

I know you understand aboutthe time it takes away from family and other things I should be doing so this is very frustrating to feel rejection due to unwarranted stares when I walk out with all of my freebies after an exciting CVS trip.
Again thank you for clarifying and one more thing, you did mention there is a 3/15 floating around. Where did you get that? Or is it specific to your account? Thanks a lot for your time and prompt response to my comment.

P.S. I was the other Tammy in the other post, I just didn't fill out the forum completely. I was actually responding to one of the responders because she mentioned that she had gotten lucky with a return by keeping ECB's and was insinuating that this was a way to earn money with CVS. This rubbed me the wrong way so I tried to respond to her specicially but it put my post at the bottom of the list. Sorry about that. It seems we both agree on that point though, that there are plenty of ways to get free stuff without making a lot of returns and compromising our card number and name.

Thanks!

Tammy

Carrie said...

Hi Tammy,

Your questions provided a great framework for some things I'd been meaning to write for awhile, so thanks. The attitude of your CVS staff makes all the difference, doesn't it? I generally try to time my visits for when my favorite cashier works.

The $3/$15 coupon was on the Washington Post e-Replica. You had to sign up for a free trial, then go to the April 24 issue, find the coupon and print it out. I just went to the site today and found that you can only view issues for the last 30 days, so I don't think it's available anymore. I hope I have enough to get me through until it expires next week!

By the way, I was also the commenter who said I did returns, but I meant that I had returned things that didn't pay ECBs. Sorry for the confusion.

Kaye (aka Mrs Nespy) said...

As I see it, if they didn't want the coupons that they emailed to me to be used by me multiple times, they could set up the coupon that way. Those of us who have printed coupons from the internet know that many sites limit how many times you can print a coupon...sometimes only once. It's obviously not a terribly hard thing to arrange, so the way I see it, they are giving us permission.

As for taking time from family...that's why I visit 3-4 main sites for finding my CVS deals. If you wait until Monday or so, many sites will have their deals posted so you don't have to use as much of your own time figuring out all of the details! If they are doing it anyway, use their hard work...that's why the post it!