CLEVELAND (WJW) — The Better Business Bureau has issued a warning about the return of a social media scam advertised as a gift exchange that promises you’ll get between six and 36 gifts if you participate.
According to the BBB, the so-called “Secret Sister” gift exchange has resurfaced on popular social media sites like Facebook and Reddit.
It’s advertised as a “Secret Santa” style gift exchange among online friends you haven’t met. However, the BBB says that while it may look innocent and fun, the “Secret Sister” gift exchange is actually a pyramid scheme and is considered illegal.
The scam quickly became popular in 2015 through Facebook posts promising that participants would receive up to 36 gifts, in exchange for sending one gift, valued at $10. Users were encouraged to invite others to participate in the holiday gift exchange and then promised they would receive information on where to mail the gifts.
The scheme begins with an invitation asking you to provide your name and address, as well as the personal information of a few additional friends. You then add this information to an already established list of people you’ve never met on the Internet. Then, you send an email or social media invitation to send a gift to a stranger along with their friends, family and contacts.
Here’s an example from a post shared this holiday season:
The BBB says this cycle continues and people begin buying and shipping gifts to people they don’t know, in hopes of receiving gifts in return.
However, that often doesn’t happen and once people stop participating in the gift exchange, the gift supply stops as well, leaving hundreds of people without their promised gifts.
According to the U.S. Postal Service, these gift exchanges are also considered a form of gambling and participants could be subject to penalties such as jail time, fines or a lawsuit for mail fraud.
The BBB says participating in these schemes can be dangerous because you’re providing the alleged “Secret Sister” campaign organizer with your 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 BBB recommends the following tips to anyone who thinks they’ve been targeted by one of these schemes:
- 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? 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.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service also offers information about chain letters at www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect, or you can call the Postal Inspection Service toll-free at 1-888-877-7644.