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BBB warns ‘Secret Santa’ and ‘Secret Sister’ gift exchange is illegal

Free gifts from strangers for the holidays is just another pyramid scheme

HOUSTON – Who needs Santa, when you can have a group of girlfriends and even strangers shower you with gifts all throughout the holiday season?

It’s called the “Secret Santa” or “Secret Sister” and it’s a gift exchange, usually amongst women. It works like this:

Secret Sister social media recruitment post
Secret Sister social media recruitment post (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)
Secret Sister social media post
Secret Sister social media post (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

• You receive an invitation to join either by email or social media

• You provide your name and address and personal information of a few additional friends to a list that’s already started of people you’ve never met on the Internet

• You then send an email or social media invitation to send a modest gift or bottle of wine to a stranger along with their friends, family and contacts

• You are then promised to receive anywhere from 6-36 gifts throughout the holiday season

Seems fun and who doesn’t like receiving gifts. But, according to the Better Business Bureau, it’s illegal -- a pyramid scam.

READ: Blessing looms, gifting circles ramping up during pandemic

On the BBB website, the organization says:

“The cycle continues and you’re left with buying and shipping gifts for unknown individuals, in hopes that the favor is reciprocated by receiving the promised number of gifts in return. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen. Just like any other pyramid scheme, it relies on the recruitment of individuals to keep the scam afloat. Once people stop participating in the gift exchange, the gift supply stops as well, and leaves hundreds of disappointed people without their promised gifts.”

According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Services, these gift exchanges are considered a form of gambling, which leaves participants subject to fines, jail time and even lawsuit for mail fraud.

If someone reaches out to you with this offer on its website, the BBB recommends the following:

• 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 Canadian agencies or 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.

For more information on other scams, visit the BBB ScamTracker.