Secret Santa exchanges around the office or with friends and family can be fun and festive for the holidays, but a gift exchange among online friends or originating as a viral social media post can actually be a scam masquerading as innocent fun.

These gift exchanges – like the “Secret Sister” post that’s being shared widely on Facebook – are actually illegal pyramid schemes.

The “Secret Sister” gift exchange quickly became popular in 2015 through Facebook posts promising participants would receive up to 36 gifts, in exchange for sending one gift. Each holiday season the scheme pops back up. A newer version of this scam revolves around exchanging bottles of wine.

How the Scam Works

The scheme starts with a convincing invitation, either by email or social media, to sign up for what seems like a fun and festive program. All you must do is provide your name and address and personal information of a few additional friends, and tack this information onto a list that’s already started of people you’ve never met on the Internet. Next, it’s your turn to send an email or social media invitation to send a modest gift or bottle of wine to a stranger along with their friends, family and contacts.

The cycle continues and you’re left with buying and shipping gifts for unknown individuals, in hopes that the favor is reciprocated by receiving the promised number of gifts in return. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen. Just like any other pyramid scheme, it relies on the recruitment of individuals to keep the scam afloat. Once people stop participating in the gift exchange, the gift supply stops as well, and leaves hundreds of disappointed people without their promised gifts.

It should be noted that pyramid schemes are illegal in the US and Canada. The U.S. Postal Inspection Services explains that these gift exchanges are considered a form of gambling and that participants could be subject to penalties such as jail time, fines or a lawsuit for mail fraud.

There is another layer of danger to participating in these schemes. When signing up, the alleged campaign organizer is asking for personal information such as a mailing address or an email. With just a few pieces of information, cyber thieves could expose you to future scams or commit identity theft.

The next time someone promises a bounty of gifts or cash by mail, email, or social media, BBB recommends the following: 

  • Ignore it! Keep in mind that pyramid schemes are international. Chain letters involving money or valuable items and promise big returns are illegal. Stop and ask, is it worth breaking the law or losing money? Report it instead to the U.S. Postal inspection Services.  
  • Report social media posts. If you receive an invitation to join a pyramid scheme on social media, report it. You can report these Facebook posts by clicking in the upper righthand corner and selecting “report post” or “report photo.”
  • Never give your personal information to strangers. This will open you up to identity theft and other scams.
  • Be wary of false claims. Some pyramid schemes try to win your confidence by claiming they’re legal and endorsed by the government. These imposter schemes are false as the government will never endorse illegal activity. No matter what they claim, pyramid schemes will not make you rich. You will receive little to no money back on your “investment” or gift exchange.

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