Ask an Expert: Can Online Coupons Cause Viruses?

I recently received an interesting question from a hesitant couponer…

I am interested in Internet coupons. I have heard that some coupon websites are bogus (false coupons) and can infect your computer with a virus.
How can we know what is a safe coupon website that actually has genuine coupons?
Thank you,
Lynette

I asked Lynette for more details about what exactly she heard and where she heard it. She replied…

I saw something on the news that grocery stores are forced to raise prices due to fraudulent coupons (mostly coupons from websites).

As for the malware, I am a victim of that event. I clicked on Coupons.com and ended up having a computer guy try to recover my computer from over 1,400 virus attached to that website.

I quickly realized Lynette was talking about two different things: coupon fraud, and coupon-related computer viruses and malware.

Let’s take them one at a time…

Coupon fraud

I haven’t seen – and I wasn’t able to find recent reports of – price hikes due to coupon fraud. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Because fake coupons are, well, real.

And they do cost stores money. When you redeem a real coupon, the store gets reimbursed by the manufacturer that issued the coupon. But with fake coupons, the store absorbs the loss.

As I explain in Bad Couponing: 9 Tips to Avoid it, there are several forms of illegal and unethical couponing.

For example, if you photocopy a legitimate coupon and try to pass it off as real, that’s coupon fraud. It’s illegal because it’s a form of counterfeiting. If you create your own coupons on your computer, designing them to look just like legitimate coupons, that’s coupon fraud (and counterfeiting) too. Last year, the FBI arrested someone for doing exactly that.

The Coupon Information Corporation – a national nonprofit that protects coupon-issuing manufacturers – maintains a list of counterfeit coupons.

Coupon-related computer viruses and malware

Some sort of virus or malware (short for “malicious software”) did go around during the spring of 2011 in association – or seemingly in association – with Coupons.com.

But the website denied being infected or infecting its visitors’ computers. As one of their engineers explained in a lengthy comment he left on several couponing blogs, Coupons.com blamed a “Trojan horse.” This type of malware mimics a legitimate computer file or program to trick you into downloading further malicious files or programs.

Wrote the engineer…

Some of our users are being tricked by a browser redirect trojan that has been sitting latently on their [computer] since it was downloaded, most likely from a questionable file sharing network file, questionable email, questionable website, even an instant messaging program with sharing rights enabled.

The trojan modifies your web browser to redirect to a malicious website that is made to look like a Microsoft “My Computer” window running a fake virus scan that is detecting non-existent threats on their computer…. Our website is likely being targeted by the redirect virus on your computer by some logic unknown to us, probably because it is a popular site in your browsing history.

Was the engineer telling the truth? It’s not really possible for someone to prove they didn’t do something – there would be no evidence, right? – but I believe their story because it makes sense. Without couponers, Coupons.com would go out of business. So for them to intentionally infect website visitors with a virus or malware would be self-sabotage – because once word got around, people would stop visiting the site.

But the lesson that all online couponers and would-be online couponers like Lynette should take away from this is to make sure you have virus and malware protection – and that it’s up to date – before you browse any kind of website.

If your computer is properly protected, there’s no reason to fear reputable coupon sites like Coupons.com, RedPlum.com, SmartSource.com, or the Money Talks News deals pages (which we vet ourselves). If your computer isn’t protected, well, we’ve got the answer to that too…

Karla Bowsher runs our deals page and covers consumer, retail, and health issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at karla@moneytalksnews.com.

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