It was described in court papers as possibly the biggest counterfeit coupon scheme in history, costing about 100 retailers and manufacturers more than $31 million in losses.
And the mastermind behind it all? A Virginia Beach entrepreneur and mother of three who’d been designing and printing the highly realistic coupons from her home computer for years.
On Tuesday, Lori Ann Villanueva Talens was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Norfolk to 12 years in federal prison. Her husband, Pacifico Talens Jr., was sentenced last month to seven years and three months for his role in the scam. Both had pleaded guilty to fraud charges.
The couple, however, was allowed to remain free on bond for a few weeks while they work on arrangements for their children. Lori Ann Talens has a 17-year-old child from a previous marriage, and shares two others, ages 6 and 9, with Pacifico Talens.
Lori Ann, 41, will begin serving her sentence Oct. 13, and Pacifico, 44, on Sept. 21.
According to prosecutors, the couple ran the fraudulent business out of their home in the Glenwood area from April 2017 through May 2020. Bank records indicated they made close to $400,000 from it, according to court documents.
But it was Lori Ann who was the mastermind behind it all, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Kosky wrote in a position paper filed before the sentencing. Pacifico’s role was mostly related to shipping, while Lori Ann took care of most everything else.
Operating under the moniker “MasterChef,” she printed the coupons on high quality, glossy paper, and added corporate logos and product images to make them look real. She even included working barcodes that scanned as legitimate when presented at supermarkets and department stores.
The coupons were so indistinguishable from real ones that it took counterfeit coupon experts to positively confirm them as phony, Kosky wrote.
The only thing suspicious about them was the was the discount amount printed on them, the prosecutor said.
In most cases they offered deals equal to, or even greater, than the value of the item in question, which allowed the shopper to get the item for free. In instances where the value of the coupon exceeded an item’s value, retailers had to pay the shopper for “purchasing” the item.
Lori Ann created a Facebook group for coupon enthusiasts, then recruited some of its members to help with her fraud scheme after they’d been vetted and vouched for by other members. The group then used the Telegram app — which uses encrypted channels and deletes messages — to communicate and coordinate their efforts.
The fraud was discovered last year when a customer reported it to the Coupon Information Center, a coalition of consumer product manufacturers dedicated to coupon integrity. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service was then called in to investigate and a search warrant was executed at the Talenses’ home.
Prosecutors said about100 businesses were impacted by the fraud, with one suffering losses of about $8 million.
Defense attorney Lawrence Woodward argued Lori Ann Talens deserved credit for immediately owning up to her crimes and assisting investigators. She’s met with them on multiple occasions to explain the methods used, and people involved, in couponing schemes across the country, Woodward said.
Before U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young issued his sentence, Talens — who was featured in a 2014 Virginian-Pilot business article in which she discussed starting her own printing company at the age of 18 — apologized and took full responsibility for her crimes.
While she said she deeply regrets the monetary losses she caused, she’s especially troubled by the pain her children and parents have suffered as a result of her actions.
“I realize I have served as a terrible moral example on how to act responsibly for my three children,” she wrote in a letter to the court.
“Somehow I completely breached the deep-seated morality my parents instilled in me as a child. They taught me to know the difference between right and wrong but I was blinded by my own greed. I am completely responsible for my actions and know I have a serious debt to pay to society.”
Jane Harper, 757-408-3714, firstname.lastname@example.org