The American true crime story that inspired the comedic film, Queenpins, was almost forgotten. This was until filmmakers Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet dug it up from the historical archives of true crime stories.
Queenpins, which features Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, is not really based on a true story. Rather, it would be safe to say that real-life events closely inspire the film. While the movie’s storyline takes on a humorous angle, the true story behind Queenpins was not as funny for the perpetrators and the victims alike.
Here’s Queenpins true crime story that inspired the movie:
The True Story of America’s Largest Counterfeit Coupon Scam
The true story that inspired Queenpins had been going on for more than five years until the police busted the ring behind what is arguably America’s largest counterfeit coupon scam.
In July 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona, police arrested three women– Robin Ramirez, Marilyn Johnson, and Amiko Fountain. They masterminded a multimillion scam that sold reproduced, free-product coupons to thousands of unsuspecting couponers.
The three women, led by ring leader Robin Ramirez, had the coupons reproduced in bulk overseas, imported them back to the U.S., and sold them online via their now-defunct website SavvyShopperSite, and eBay as well. According to Sgt. David Lake, the women would sell the coupons for close to 50 percent of their face value. David Lake of the Phoenix Police Department was in charge of investigating the couponing scheme.
How The True Story Behind Queenpins Worked
The women behind the counterfeit coupon ring had it all figured out. Ramirez would reproduce free coupons that were once real and then sell them online to eager couponers. Buyers obtained the coupons via eBay or were invited through referral by an existing customer to the group’s website.
On the website, invited couponers would access high-dollar coupons targeting large, well-known manufacturers such as Hershey’s, Huggies, Unilever, and Proctor and Gamble, among others.
The coupons the women sold online were not the small-time, fifty-cents-off types. Rather, the ring sold high-value coupons that would rake them 100 percent returns if a store rejected any of their cards.
Robin Ramirez began selling fake coupons in 2007, later recruiting Amiko Fountain and Marilyn Johnson into the gang.
The Real Queenpins Had A Flashy Lifestyle
As depicted in the movie, the three real-life Queenpins lived a life of luxury from the money they made from their fraudulent activities. When describing the women’s wealth, Sgt. Lake said, “The money they made was drug cartel-type stuff.”
The counterfeit coupons were said to be worth $40 million. In addition, police also found assets worth $2 million among the three women, including sports cars, 21 vehicles, a speed boat, 22 guns, and four homes.
Robin Ramirez, the group’s leader, rented an airplane hangar she used to store her many off-road cars, a luxury R.V., a 40-foot speedboat, and a fleet of vehicles, which included a custom Corvette worth approximately $150,000.
Police Conducted An Undercover Investigation
The Phoenix Police Department began an undercover investigation of the counterfeit couponing scheme after several companies noticed the fake coupon claims and even hired their own private investigators. This is unlike in the movie, where the postal inspector and store anti-loss officer take it upon themselves to investigate what they thought was a mailing scam.
In the real story, the police launched an 8-week-long investigation into the three women, at one point pretending to be customers wanting to purchase the coupons. The FBI also got involved and helped to bust the scammers.
The SWAT operation in the movie is made for tickles, but the true story behind Queenpins actually involved a SWAT team that raided the homes of Ramirez, Johnson, and Fountain.
According to Bud Miller (played by Paul Walter Hauser as Ken Miller), who was the then Executive Director of the Coupon Information Center (CIC), the SWAT team had to remove the door to one of the homes during the operation. Miller and some members of the CIC watched the bust from a nearby mobile command unit.
Real-life Counterfeit Coupon Scheme Ran into Millions of Dollars
From their investigations, police discovered $40 million worth of fake coupons. They also seized an additional $2 million in assets from the women’s homes in Phoenix, Arizona.
Companies such as Hershey’s, Proctor and Gamble, and Unilever were the main victims of the real-life Queenpins scam. According to reports by the Phoenix Police Department, the three fleeced companies millions of dollars, adding up to $600 million on the lower side.
Customers Might Have Been Unaware Of The Scam
In real life, Ramirez and her friends scammed thousands of customers, some of whom did not know they were aiding a criminal enterprise. However, some things could have raised eyebrows. For example, the women sold free-product coupons on their SavvyShopperSite but required buyers to shell out at least $50 on coupons for each order.
Other red flags included the requirement for a referral from an existing customer to qualify to make an order. Customers were encouraged not to talk about the site, and the coupon deals with people they do not trust and do not have common sense. In addition, the only way to pay for orders was with a Green Dot prepaid debit card.
Aside from the usual couponers, some of those who bought the coupons later resold them. The coupon blog loved resellers who were instrumental to the site’s growth and generation of money.
Critics Decried The Light Punishment
Like in the movie, the true crime story ended with the three women paying restitution and even serving time. When they were arrested in July 2012, the police charged the women with forgery, counterfeiting, money laundering, and engaging in illegal practices.
Neither of the women rattles on the other in the movie. But this was not the case in real life. In the true story, Fountain and Johnson decided to gang up and testify against Ramirez, the ring leader. Ramirez had no choice but to plead guilty to illegal control of an enterprise, one count of counterfeiting, and forgery, for which she was sentenced to two years in jail and seven years of supervised probation.
Ramirez’s fellow coupon clippers and accomplices escaped jail by a whisker, a decision that baffled everyone given their deep involvement with the scam. Fountain and Johnston pleaded guilty to the charge of counterfeiting. The court ordered all three to reimburse Procter & Gamble $1.3 million for the company’s losses.
According to critics, the three women received a very lenient sentence given the gravity of their crimes involving the sale of fraudulent coupons.
Queenpin did an excellent job of bringing to the forefront an important but almost forgotten story about couponing. There is a large couponing community in the U.S., and while many coupon enthusiasts are genuine, the sale and buying of coupons online have their own risks, as is depicted in the movie.