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'Secret Sister' scheme likely illegal

Posted at 10:48 AM, Nov 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-17 12:48:19-05

If you've been on Facebook lately, you may have seen some friends sharing something called a 'Secret Sisters Gift Exchange.' It starts with a friend posting a message to his or her social media page or inviting you to join a group. The post asks you to send one, $10 gift and in return, you’ll get six to 36 gifts from other “secret sisters.” Once you say you’re in, you are supposed to nominate six other friends to give and get gifts.

But Dale Dixon with the Better Business Bureau says the scheme could be illegal.

He writes:

The instructions request that you only participate if you can complete the gifting within a week, to be “fair to the ladies who are waiting for their own gifts to arrive.” It may encourage you to send gifts directly from online shops to save time. In order to make sure you get your gifts in a timely manner, the post says you need to spread the exchange to more people right away.

There are several things to watch out for here. This exchange can be viewed as a pyramid scheme, because one person buys in, then he or she asks more people to pay and so on.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service says “chain letters” are illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants. Chain letters like this are a form of gambling, according to the postal service.

The second problem is you are giving out personal information to total strangers. Some of the posts I’ve seen are people posting their friends’ and family members’ information, thinking they are signing them up for a fun gift. Sharing personal information like names, addresses and phone numbers can leave you and your loved ones vulnerable to a variety of problems. And third, the math makes no sense. You send one gift, and get 36 in return? How would that work if everyone is promised the same thing?

Some people have joined the exchanges genuinely wanting to participate, so some people have received a gift. But keep in mind, those pictures online can easily be faked, and no one is posting about getting the 6 to 36 gifts promised. If the fact it’s illegal isn’t enough to sway you to stay away, do be wary of gift-giving groups moderated by a stranger who collects and distributes the addresses. Participants could end up sending all their gifts to once person, because the gifts are “secret.” The whole thing is very risky, so your best bet is to only participate in gift exchanges with people you know, and off line.