‘Secret Sister’ gift exchange on Facebook: What you need to know

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Have you seen those statuses on Facebook inviting you to be part of a “Secret Sister” gift exchange? It sounds like such a sweet idea.

The idea is that women from across the country take part in an anonymous gift swap in which everyone buys a simple $10 gift (such as gift cards, socks, cosmetics, etc.).

Then, throughout the month of December, the participants could receives as many as 36 gifts in the mail from their “Secret Sisters.” Awesome, right?


There’s just one problem. This is actually a scheme, and a very mean one at that, as it plays on these women’s Christmas spirit and promises them sisterhood and simple holiday joys, when really, it’s just a pyramid scheme. Ouch.

Yep. Here’s what actually happens: You give the organizer your full address, phone number and other personal information. Then, you buy a gift and send it to the address they give you (and who knows where it actually ends up). And, you wait. And wait. And wait. You may receive a small gift in the mail, or maybe even two, but certainly not the deluge of holiday presents promised to you.

Getty Images | Adam Berry

As the U.S. Postal Inspection Service pointed out, it’s mathematically impossible to come out a winner in this type of pyramid scheme (or any pyramid scheme). Worse still, everyone might be sending their gift to the same person, who is reaping all the benefits of the game.

“Chain letters don’t work because the promise that all participants in a chain letter will be winners is mathematically impossible,” according to the service. “Also, many people participate, but do not send money to the person at the top of the list. Some others create a chain letter that lists their name numerous times—in various forms with different addressee. So, in reality, all the money in a chain is going to one person.”

Getty Images | Dan Kitwood

Paul Krenn, a spokesman for the postal inspection service, told BuzzFeed that by the time the exchange got to the 11th round, everyone in the United States would have to be involved to make good on the exchange’s promise.

“The odds are likely greater that Santa Claus, himself, would fly his sleigh into the middle of Times Square to personally distribute the gifts,” he said.

But here’s the real fly in the ointment: You are sharing tons of personal information with complete strangers.

“You could be sharing your name, your phone number, your address. All things identity thieves look for when they are trying to build a profile on you,” Kevin Hinterberger, with the BBB serving Central Carolin, explained to TV station WFMY.

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And it gets even worse. These types of gift exchanges are actually illegal. In a statement on their web site, the Better Business Bureau has issued a warning about the “Secret Sister” gift exchange, saying:

“While gift exchanges grow in popularity during the holiday season, BBB advises consumers to use caution when choosing one in which to participate. According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s gambling and pyramid scheme laws, gift chains like this are illegal and participants could be subject to penalties for mail fraud.”

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Wow. Oh, and the same is also true for those “Wine Exchanges” you see on Facebook, in which you are told you if buy and ship just one bottle of wine, you could receive anywhere from six to 36 wine bottles in return. But, again, the end goal here is for these MLM companies to get your home address and personal information.

Beyond that, these exchanges also violate Facebook’s rules, too.

Getty Images | Dan Kitwood

“You will not engage in unlawful multi-level marketing, such as a pyramid scheme, on Facebook,” according to the social media site’s terms of service.

Bottom line, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is—even when it comes to Christmas spirit. Bah humbug.

About the Author

Bridget Sharkey

Bridget Sharkey is a freelance writer/ghostwriter with a background in publicity. As a ghostwriter, she conceives, researches and composes original content for clients in the fields of business, hospitality, lifestyle, technology and relationships. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and children, Maeve and Malcolm. You can reach her at http://bridgetsharkeywrites.com/. More.

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