It pains me when I see this stupid scam recirculate year after year. The holiday season is stressful enough without trying to prevent nanas and aunties from giving their private information to a very illegal scheme.

I realize that this may seem innocent and fun, but a "Secret Sister" gift exchange with online friends and people you have literally never met in your entire life is a bad idea. It’s really a pyramid scheme and is technically illegal.

According to the Better Business Bureau, this scam first came on the scene through Facebook back in 2015. An individual would buy one gift with the hopes that he or she would receive up to 36 gifts in return. It would appear that this year’s theme is wine. Bottles and bottles of wine.

The basic idea of how this scam works starts with a simple, yet convincing invitation to participate in a fun program. This can be through email or generic social media posts. One would provide his or her name, address, and personal information of a few more friends. All of this information would be added to a list that’s already started of people who have never met on the Internet. Once you provide the information, it’s your turn to send the email or social media post to get others to join the fun.

“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.

 

It should be noted that pyramid schemes are illegal in the US and Canada. The U.S. Postal Inspection Services explains that these gift exchanges are considered a form of gambling and that participants could be subject to penalties such as jail time, fines or a lawsuit for mail fraud.” – BBB

This Christmas, don’t be fooled by the Secret Sister gift exchange program and protect yourself from other types of scams. Never share your personal information online, especially with complete strangers. Beware of cyber thieves. If you see an invitation, report it to the U.S. Postal Inspection Services. Or report a social media post by clicking in the upper-righthand corner and selecting “Report post” or “report photo.”

More information on scams is available by visiting BBB Scam Tips and become an advocate by reporting scams to BBB Scam Tracker.