“Secret Sister,” a holiday promotion especially advertised on Facebook as a way to send out a few $10 gifts to selected friends and receive 36 gifts in return, is a pyramid scheme, according to Dick Eppstein, president of the area Better Business Bureau.
The “Secret Sister” gift exchange campaign promises participants will receive up to 36 gifts, in exchange for sending 1-6 gifts. A newer version of this scam involves exchanging bottles of wine; another suggests purchasing $10 gifts online. It might include references to receiving “happy mail” or doing the exchange “for the good of the sisterhood.”
Eppstein said the scam begins with a convincing invitation, either by email or social media, to sign up for what seems like an enjoyable program. Participants are asked to provide their names, addresses, and personal information of a few additional friends and tack the information onto a ready list of people they’ve never met. Then it’s the participant’s turn to 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.
The cycle continues, and participants are left buying and shipping gifts for unknown individuals, in hopes that the favor is reciprocated by receiving the promised number of gifts in return. Unfortunately, Eppstein said, that doesn’t happen. The pyramid scheme relies on the recruitment of individuals to keep the scam afloat. Once people stop participating, the gift supply stops as well, leaving hundreds of disappointed people without their promised gifts.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service confirms 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. And when participants sign up, the alleged campaign organizer asks for personal information such as a mailing address or an email. With just a few pieces of information, cyber thieves could expose participants to future scams or commit identity theft.
Report any such activity to the U.S. Postal inspection Services. Report social media posts. If an invitation to join a pyramid scheme on social media is received, report it. Report Facebook posts by clicking in the upper right-hand corner and selecting “Report post” or “report photo.” Never give personal information to strangers.
Some pyramid schemes falsely try to win confidence by claiming they’re legal and endorsed by the government. No matter what they claim, pyramid schemes result in little to no money back on the participant’s investment or gift exchange.