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Published: Sep 16, 2020 13 min read
Jade Schulz for Money

There’s a woman in Florida who needs an air conditioner, and a small army of Facebook moms is hell-bent on buying it for her.

Leading the charge is Desiree Stringer, an admin who posted a plea on behalf of the A/C-deprived Floridian over her morning coffee. Stringer is watching as the donations come in: a couple bucks from someone named Elizabeth, a fiver from Tracy, $12.62 from Deborah. Some share screenshots to prove they gave, while others add words of sympathy about the weather or animal GIFs. Every so often, a member pops in with an update on how close they are to reaching the $200 goal.

Three and a half hours later, the A/C is fully funded. Stringer is crying. And, in true Facebook mom fashion, they’ve raised an additional $30 for a protection plan.

This might sound remarkable, but it’s just another day in Amazon gifting, a sub-genre of Facebook groups that has exploded in popularity as the pandemic has unfolded. Stuck at home, thousands of people are gathering online so they can buy presents for strangers.

For those struggling to cope with the constant barrage of bad news, Amazon gifting groups are a safe space: an upbeat place where they can chat, complain and, yes, sometimes score free stuff. There are hundreds of them on Facebook, with names like Amazon Wishlist Fairy Dusting and Keep Calm And Get Your Gifting On. Gifts range from expensive air conditioners to $2.97 bottles of Crest toothpaste; from $99 tufted swivel chairs to cheap car decals that say “got chickens?” Group operations run the gamut, too, but most have strict rules, devoted mods and wacky games.

Sounds amazing, right? But if you dig deeper, you’ll find elements reminiscent of a pyramid scheme. People recruit each other in droves. The groups promise untold riches. A lot of transactions are taking place, and a major corporation — Amazon — is quietly profiting behind the scenes.

But Stringer, a 36-year-old who oversees the 15,000-person Gifting for Everyone, insists Amazon gifting couldn’t be further from a scam. It’s a new way to pay it forward.

“There are times where I sit and look at my phone and I’m like, ‘Wow,’” she says. “If you’d told me there were this many nice people in the world, I’d have told you you were crazy.”

Blackjack, Ninja and… Friendship?

Katie Goodell and Hannah Sadler will tell you honestly why they created Butterfly Effect - Amazon Gifting Group. They needed to talk to someone who wasn’t 5 years old.

Both Maine-based moms with young kids, Goodell and Sadler were in a different gifting group when the lockdowns started earlier this year. At the same time they were figuring out how to juggle working from home with caring for their children, they were also realizing how dissatisfied they were with the group’s inner workings. The friends decided to form a new one in hopes of getting some wholesome adult interaction.

“I needed a space where I wasn't Mom, I wasn’t a student, I wasn’t working — where I could socialize and be a person, because you lose that among the chaos,” 26-year-old Sadler says.

A Facebook search turns up dozens of Amazon gifting groups, each with a slight twist from the one before it. Some target certain kinds of people, allowing teenagers, Americans or TikTok creators only, or include emoji to differentiate themselves. Many, like Butterfly Effect, were founded in the past six months.

Gifting revolves around Amazon Wish Lists, which shoppers have been using since 1999 to keep track of items they want. Because they’re shareable, folks can view and buy things off of each other's lists. Though you must input your own card number to purchase something, only Amazon has access to the shipping details. “You’re not giving strangers on the internet your address,” Sadler says.

To participate, you need an Amazon Wish List (duh) and a willingness to engage. You can't randomly show up in a group and demand presents — you've got to immerse yourself in the culture and join the conversation. Only then will members buy stuff for you.

That said, once Amazon boxes start appearing on your doorstep, it’s like magic. Sadler estimates her group generates about 5,000 gifts per month.

“Our philosophy is to always give more than you receive, and make new connections. Not everybody can afford to gift the same level,” she says. “Somebody who sends a $5 gift is just as valid as somebody who sends a $20 gift.”

Deciding what to give is often easier than deciding who to give to. That’s where the games come in. In Amazon Wishes - Gifting Group, the 800 members regularly play bingo. Someone will whip up a board with descriptions of themself in each square — “allergic to chocolate,” “loves Halloween,” “vapes” — and share the graphic. People mark off the qualities they have in common, and if they get bingo they win an item off their list.

Butterfly Effect hosts a game almost every night; it takes about 2 ½ hours. Recently, the 1,200 members had a Las Vegas-themed week where the members played virtual blackjack, using a train-style system to buy presents for the commenter ahead of them. How expensive the gift was depended on how close to 21 the player’s hand was.

However, gifting doesn’t require a victory in an elaborate game. Most groups have some form of “ninja” — a low-key, ongoing bit where people anonymously buy items without announcing it or taking credit. Others let members purchase whatever, whenever. Users will post messages like “Are there any other Boston terrier moms here I can buy for?” or “I’ve been reading a lot lately. Let me see those book links!”

“Yes, the main thing is giving and receiving gifts, but there’s friendships evolving,” says Debb Frost, a 30-year-old who lives in Tennessee and runs Amazon Wishes. “You get into this group, and you drink the Kool-Aid: ‘Ooh, what game are we playing? Ooh, what can we buy for this person?’”

Jade Schulz for Money

Shopping Safely — and for the Right Reasons

Spending money on others generates lasting happiness, according to Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of the book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. So in addition to the fun of getting presents in the mail, Amazon gifters are actually enjoying psychological and social benefits — things they've desperately needed in an era dominated by quarantine and remote work.

But at the same time, you can’t overlook the capitalist undertones. Amazon gifting is notable for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that it combines two highly controversial companies.

Amazon is owned by the world’s richest man: Jeff Bezos. Both the billionaire himself and the platform have been criticized for its federal taxes, mistreating warehouse workers, exploiting delivery drivers and price gouging. The once-trillion-dollar company has been the target of protests, boycotts and Bernie Sanders’ tweets.

And then there’s Facebook, which has spent the past couple years fighting fake news, privacy breaches, ad fraud and the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, not to mention its role in Russia’s election interference and violent live broadcasts. And don’t forget the ever-present #DeleteFacebook movement.

The members of Amazon gifting groups don’t seem to care much about these companies’ reputations. Getting ripped off is a bigger concern.

Facebook is a notorious breeding ground for multi-level marketing schemes like LuLaRoe. Every December, a “secret sister exchange” goes viral. It promises if you send a $10 gift to another person, you’ll get six to 36 presents in return. (The Better Business Bureau flatly labels this a scam.)

But Amazon gifting groups are focused on fairness. Some forbid registries — like the one that funded the air conditioner in Gifting for Everyone — because they’re easy to exploit. Sob stories and blatant requests for money are prohibited across the board. Another faux pas is “cold dropping,” meaning you’re forbidden from posting your wish list unless someone specifically asks for it.

“The whole purpose of the group is community and getting to know each other and making connections. If you’re cold dropping, you’re not in it for the right reasons,” says Butterfly Effect’s Goodell.

In Amazon Wishes, posts get manually approved, which takes a long time but “at least we can make sure there’s safety, and no one’s getting screwed over,” Frost says. Goodell uses a spreadsheet to track how many people have actually received gifts promised by others during games. Otherwise, the primary defense against scammers is word-of-mouth: If one group bans a bad actor, its mods will often share that information with other groups so they don’t get fooled, too.

Mason Wilder, a senior research specialist with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, says the actual purchasing process in these groups probably isn’t sketchy. Instead, Amazon gifting presents other security risks.

Social engineering is one such threat. A scammer could start to groom an unsuspecting member by buying them stuff, striking up a conversation and then later on pulling a Nigerian prince-style scam. With your guard down, you may be more likely to accept a wire transfer or send over cash.

“I’d set a pretty hard cap on how much I was willing to spend on a gift for some stranger — and not make any exceptions on that,” Wilder says. “Limit it to $20. Then, if that is a scam, you’re only out $20.”

Jade Schulz for Money

‘Something Positive’

In the year 2020, you can’t avoid the internet, and on the internet you can’t avoid scammers. But Amazon groups are well-guarded. Stick around long enough, and you’ll see how dedicated the Gifters are to protecting their own — and how financially committed they are to their hobby.

Thousands of dollars exchange hands on a daily basis in Amazon groups. Cheap gifts are popular because they’re easier to give in a large quantity. Scrunchies, nail polish, metal straws and mug cake mixes are perfect for this purpose. But every once in a while, you’ll encounter a member who prefers to give costlier items, like ice cream makers, hair straighteners, Friends DVDs or Bluetooth headphones.

It’s an expensive pastime. Sadler, of Butterfly Effect, personally devotes about $700 a month to Amazon gifting. Goodell sets limits, too, but the 25-year-old admits that in May she accidentally went overboard — to the tune of $1,400.

“It was scary when I saw the [bank] statement,” she says.

Despite the huge amount of money involved, Amazon gifting communities are tight-knit. In between hundred-comment “thank you” threads and photos of brown boxes piled on kitchen counters, there are announcements of babies’ first steps, jokes about spoiled husbands and requests for advice about upcoming surgeries. Stranger danger doesn’t exist here — teachers post in hopes of collecting supplies for their classrooms; nurses log on during breaks in their 14-hour hospital shifts.

Gifting groups attract people of all identities, in all locations, which is an added bonus when isolation is making the world feel small. Conversations are weirdly honest and super personal. And the price of admission is just… being nice.

“All you see on the news is this many people died, this many people are fighting,” Amazon Wishes’ Frost says. “Sometimes you need something positive to keep yourself going.”

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