If you haven’t yet heard of the “secret sister” gift exchange that’s all over social media, here’s what you need to know: It’s a scam. Specifically, it’s a pyramid scheme.
Scam-alert site Snopes first posted about the secret sister scheme after people started reporting the posts in late October. The first person makes a post on some social media platform inviting six friends to take part in a gift exchange: You send one person a $10 gift, and in return, you could get between six and 36 gifts, depending how many people participate. You’re instructed to send the gift to “sister number 1” on the list provided by the person who invited you, move “sister number 2” to number 1, put your name as number 2 and, finally, invite six friends to participate. Each of those friends would theoretically invite six additional friends, hence the potential for 36 gifts — and the name “pyramid scheme.”
It’s the social media version of chain-letter gifting, which can be illegal. The Postal Lottery Statute says it’s illegal to send chain letters “if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants.” (Like receiving six-to-36 gifts in exchange for one.) Even though the chain-letter portion of the secret sister scheme occurs online, if any part of the exchange involves the mail, it’s illegal under that statute, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s website. The site also notes that it’s “mathematically impossible” for everyone in the chain to get the maximum prize — in this case, 36 gifts.
In this secret sister scenario, the worst thing that could happen is you send a $10 gift to someone and get nothing in return. In many comment strings about the secret sister scheme on platforms like Facebook and Reddit, people have said they don’t care if they don’t get anything, because they like the idea of making someone happy during the holidays, but most online scams aren’t heartwarming.
Sending money or personal information to someone because they’ve promised to make it worth your investment is often a setup for financial loss. If you’re ever worried you shared your personal information when you shouldn’t have, it’s a good idea to watch your credit reports for signs of fraud.
That’s not to say gift exchanges aren’t a fun way for you and your friends to celebrate the holidays and your relationships, but you may want to leave the pyramid scheme out of it.