Lori Ann Talens stumbled into the dark underbelly of counterfeit couponing seemingly by accident. In letters to the court, the 41-year-old mother of three said she was the administrator of a coupon enthusiasts group on Facebook before she learned how to make fake ones and got recruited on the dark web.
Three years later, prosecutors said, she was running one of the most prolific counterfeit coupon schemes in history.
Talens was sentenced Tuesday to 12 years in federal prison after she pleaded guilty to fraud charges earlier this year. A judge previously gave her soon-to-be ex-husband, Pacifico Talens, a sentence of seven years and three months for his alleged role in the fraud.
Both were ordered to pay $31.8 million in restitution — the total amount prosecutors say retailers were ripped off over a three year period beginning in 2017.
“(Lori Ann Talens), along with her husband and co-defendant Pacifico Talens, constructed what may be one of the biggest counterfeit coupon schemes in history,” prosecutors said in sentencing documents. “Utilizing the internet, social media, and expertise she learned from her experience in the retail world, Lori Ann Talens perfected the art of counterfeiting coupons.
“Her skill was such that the coupons she created were virtually indistinguishable from genuine coupons and took counterfeit coupon experts to positively confirm them as counterfeit,” they added.
Prosecutors described the Talens’ business as an “empire” that operated on a “truly massive” scale with over 100 victims and 2,086 customers worldwide.
At the center of it all was Lori Ann Talens, who the government said was the “mastermind, architect, and engine” behind the business.
‘MasterChef’ and the art of counterfeit couponing
According to federal documents filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, Lori Ann and Pacifico Talens ran the scheme out of their home in Virginia Beach.
Lori Ann Talens was the administrator of a Facebook group for coupon enthusiasts and used the platform to recruit customers, prosecutors said. Going by the name “MasterChef,” she reportedly conducted the transactions using encrypted messages on the app Telegram.
The coupons she is accused of selling were often worth the total value of the good or, in some cases, more.
Prosecutors said Pacifico Talens was something of an “assistant” to his wife — packaging boxes of the fake coupons, sending them out for delivery and testing counterfeits at local stores. He also is accused of selling them to coworkers.
Defense attorneys representing the Talens did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on Wednesday.
Someone in the group eventually reported the Talens to the Coupon Information Center, a nonprofit association that fights coupon fraud. The case was then transferred to U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
When investigators ultimately searched the Talens’ home in 2020, prosecutors said, they found $1 million worth of counterfeit coupons and the designs for 13,315 more on the computer.
In addition to the $31 million in estimated losses, the Talens took home at least $396,000 in compensation, the government said.
Lori Ann and Pacifico Talens waived their right to an indictment and pleaded guilty in May.
‘Blinded by greed’
Prosecutors pushed for lengthy prison sentences, pointing in-part to the need to deter other counterfeit coupon makers from attempting to “duplicate the Talens’s success.”
Lori Ann Talens, in particular, deserved a harsh punishment for her alleged role in the fraud, the government said.
“But for Lori Ann’s expertise, motivation, and determination, this scheme could not have occurred,” prosecutors said in sentencing documents. “She deserves the lion’s share of the credit for its success, and consequentially, must receive the lion’s share of punishment for the harm she has caused.”
In motions to the court, the Talens’ lawyers requested leniency. They described their clients’ relationship as “tumultuous” and said their children would be at a disadvantage if both parents were imprisoned for a lengthy period of time.
Pacifico Talens’ defense attorney said his role was “limited” and the couple is now “involved in a contested custody and divorce action against each other.”
His sister described him in a letter to the court as “a good person who made some bad decisions that led him to this point.”
A lawyer for Lori Ann Talens said she has taken full responsibility for her actions and provided investigators with invaluable information about the “rather murky world of counterfeit couponing.”
Lori Ann Talens also addressed the court in a 16-page letter detailing her upbringing, past relationships and foray into the world of counterfeit coupons. She said a friend taught her how to alter coupons and she later taught herself how to make them with false bar codes.
According to her letter, Lori Ann Talens then sold them to the administrators of fake coupon groups on the dark web. The groups had databases with thousands of existing coupons, which members paid monthly dues to access.
Lori Ann Talens said she was eventually recruited as a spy for rival fraudulent coupon groups and accessed their databases to design her own counterfeits. She had them printed professionally and sold them “via custom order.”
Eventually, Lori Ann Talens said, she had her own group and a team of coupon makers who worked for her.
She expressed remorse for the embarrassment she caused her parents and harm inflicted on her children, who she said will be “raised without a parent in my absence.”
“I know I committed a serious crime,” she said in her letter. “I also know that I must accept the consequences. I knowingly cheated companies and earned thousands of dollars that did not belong to me. I was blinded by greed and the need to feel successful, even if that success was based on lies.”