Back in 2011, news that Target was accused of reneging on store coupons had many consumer groups up in arms. But whether they know it or not, consumers can take matters into their own hands and take these steps to make sure they get every last benefit from a store coupon.

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There's no doubt consumers love their coupons, and those coupons, whether they're of the paper or online variety, often drive consumers to make purchases they may not ordinarily make. (For related reading, see Coupon Shopping: Clip Your Way To Savings.)

According to a recent study from Forrester Research on behalf of Whaleshark Media, six in 10 survey recipients said they would be more likely to make a purchase when given a coupon, even after rejecting that purchase before receiving a coupon. And, around 80% said that receiving coupons brightens their outlook on the company providing that coupon.

But not all coupon programs are on the level. Fake coupons, coupons with too much "fine print," and coupons that are rejected at the point of purchase are just a few ways consumers can get the shaft in a coupon deal.

What are the most recognizable "red flags" that your coupon isn't on the up-and-up? Let's take a look:

Faked Coupons
With the development of computer graphics and scanners, any fly-by-night operation could make coupons, or even coupon books, and sell them to unsuspecting consumers. Or worse, the shoppers themselves would use the bogus coupons to get discounts to purchases. But retailers are wising up, using scannable bar codes on legitimate coupons – and increasingly, leaving fraudsters to play catch up. (For more information, read Stop Scams In Their Tracks.)

Not Sure If Your Coupon Is Legit?
If you feel like your coupon may be suspect, or just want to be sure before you use it online or in a store, check out the consumer advocacy website Coupon Information Corporation (CIC). The fraud fighting firm has exposed more than $750 million in fraudulent coupons. The site has loads of data for consumers to use to make sure they know the difference between a real coupon and a fake one.

If a "Retailer" or Marketing Firm Asks You to Pay Money for a Coupon, Keep Walking
The CIC adds a good tip to the menu – avoid shelling out cash for coupons. The group says that "buying coupons from companies/individuals who 'sell the service of clipping coupons' instead of the coupons themselves." The CIC says to be especially vigilant about handing over any personal financial information to companies looking to sell coupons. In other words, don't.

Bone up on Bar Codes
To really make sure you have a legit coupon, start by studying the coupon bar codes. Specifically, look at the bar code down at the bottom of the coupon (it's the same online or with a physical coupon). Always make sure the bar code has 12 digits – if it doesn't, it's a fake. Also, the 10th and 11th digits on the bar code should correspond to the actual amount, or to at least two similar numbers (for example, 1 and 0 for $1.00, or 7 and 5 for 75 cents off).

Here's a bonus tip: to ensure you get the discount you have coming, always check your receipt before you leave the store, or just after making an online purchase. If the receipt doesn't have the discount included, double back and let the retailer know.

The Bottom Line
Making sure a coupon is legit isn't all that difficult. All it takes is a little due diligence and some sharp focus. Use both and you'll get the most from your coupon book. (For more information, read Why Do Companies Print Coupons?)

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