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‘Secret Sister’ holiday gift exchange scam is back, police warn

Now that the holidays are here, so are social media posts about a gift exchange that promises you'll get between 6 and 36 gifts if you participate.

Don't fall for it -- it's a scam!

The same scam surfaced in previous years, too. The so-called "secret sister" gift exchange has circulated widely on Facebook, Reddit and various forums, according to Snopes.  The posts often promise participants 36 gifts in exchange for one present valued at $10.

Snopes pointed out that, despite plentiful comments from people saying they were participating, only a few posted proof of receiving even one gift.

Here’s an example from a post shared this holiday season:

(Facebook)

Police departments are again warning social media users about the scam.

The idea behind the “exchange” is similar to chain letter gift exchanges that were popular in the 90s and email chain letters that were common in the early 2000s.

Here's how the exchange is sold to would-be participants:

Welcome to our secret sister gift exchange! Here's how it works:

1) Send one gift value at least $10 to secret sister #1 below.

2) Remove secret sister's name from #1; then move secret sister #2 to that spot.

3) Add your name to #2 with your info.

4) Then send this info to 6 other ladies with the updated name info

5) Copy the secret sister request that I posted on my wall, to your own wall. If you cannot complete this within 1 week please notify me, as it isn't fair to the ladies who have participated and are waiting for their own gifts to arrive. You might want to order directly from a web-based service (Amazon, or any other online shop) which saves a trip to the post office. Soon you should receive 36 gifts! What a deal, 36 gifts for giving just one! Be sure to include some information about yourself ... some of your favorites. Seldom does anyone drop out because it's so much fun to send a gift to someone you may or may not know ... and of course it's fun to receive. You should begin receiving gifts in about 2 weeks if you get your letters out to your 6 people right away.

Despite the probability that most participants will never receive the promised avalanche of holiday gifts, it’s also worth noting that gift chains are illegal.

According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service:

“There’s at least one problem with chain letters. They’re illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants. Chain letters are a form of gambling, and sending them through the mail (or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate) violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute. (Chain letters that ask for items of minor value, like picture postcards or recipes, may be mailed, since such items are not things of value within the meaning of the law.”

The Better Business Bureau wrote in a 2016 article that "pyramid schemes are illegal either by mail or on social media if money or other items of value are requested with assurance of a sizeable return for those who participate."

The BBB suggested the following tips to anyone who thinks they've been targeted:

  • Start With Trust®. Check with BBB before becoming involved in suspicious and possibly illegal activity.
  • To avoid this scam, the best thing to do is completely ignore it altogether. Do not give out personal information to anyone.
  • Chain letters via social media and U.S. mail that involve money or valuable items and promise big returns are illegal. If you start a chain letter or send one, you are breaking the law.
  • Chances are you will receive little or no money back on your “investment.” Despite the claims, a chain letter will never make you rich.
  • Some chain letters try to win your confidence by claiming they’re legal and endorsed by the government.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service 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.