Social media “Secret Sister” gift exchange is an illegal pyramid scheme in a Santa suit, says Better Business Bureau

It’s that time of year,

When the world falls in love,

Every song you hear seems to say,

Merry Christmas,

Please give us your name, address,

The contact information for several of your close friends and family,

And ten dollars, and you might receive,

Up to 36 gifts in return from everyone participating,

In this year’s Secret Sister game!

Well, not every song. But if you spend a lot of time on Facebook during the holiday season, it will probably seem like it.

The “Secret Sister” gift exchange post has popped up on social media going back to 2015, and this year appears to be no different.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an example of what the post might look like:

“Creating some positivity?” That sounds like a fantastic idea. After the way THIS year has been going for all of us, positivity is in short supply. Why not join in on a light-hearted Secret Santa while it looks like we won’t be able to join in on any in-person celebrations this winter?

…Aaaand that’s how they’ll get you. That thought process right there. Because although this scam was around long before COVID, it will be far more enticing this year than any previous. We’re all primed to conduct our holiday cheering online—and we’re far more likely to seek out ways to put ourselves in the Christmas spirit after eight months of doom and gloom.

You see, the whole “Secret Sister” thing is a lie. In reality, it’s a clever recruitment tool to get you involved in a good old fashioned pyramid scheme, according to Better Business Bureau.

You throw in $10 and tell your friends. And then they throw in $10 and tell their friends. …And then they throw in $10 and tell their friends… And so on, and so on, and so on, until the last person on Earth has put her Hamilton into the basket and there are absolutely no gifts to go around—assuming anyone gets any gifts in return at all, of course.

To make matters worse, your $10 isn’t the only thing at stake in these gift exchanges. In order to make the sending and receiving of mystery gifts from strangers possible, the exchange operators will need your full name, your address, and quite possibly your financial information depending on how they’re asking you to send your buy-in. That’s MORE than enough information for someone to get the ball rolling on stealing your identity.

Not only is this a pretty straightforward pyramid scheme—which are extremely illegal in the United States—but it’s also a form of illegal gambling, says the U.S. Postal Inspection Services.

Participating in a gift exchange like this could get you in hot water for mail fraud. Note that strange little comment in the example image about “don’t comment that it’s illegal for sending people a $10 Christmas gift.” Yeah. This person knows exactly what they’re doing.

And for the record? It IS illegal.

This scam is mostly being seen on Facebook, but you should keep an eye out for it on all of your social media platforms. It goes without saying you should completely ignore any posts or requests to join any Secret Santa-style gift exchanges with strangers, but if you see any of your friends and family sharing posts like this, give them a heads-up: not only is this a scam, but it’s one that can get everyone who participates into big, big trouble.

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