'Ignore it!' Wisconsin BBB again warns that the 'Secret Sister' gift exchange is illegal

MILWAUKEE -- A "Secret Santa" around the office, friends, and family can be fun. A "Secret Sister" gift exchange among online friends you haven’t met, well, that’s a little different and carries a heftier consequence. These gift exchanges, while they look like innocent fun, are really pyramid schemes -- and are considered illegal. Officials with the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau issued another reminder Monday, Dec. 23, two days before Christmas.

According to a news release from the BBB, the “Secret Sister” gift exchange campaign quickly became popular in 2015 through Facebook posts promising participants would receive up to 36 gifts, in exchange for sending one gift, valued at $10. Users were encouraged to invite others to participate in the holiday gift exchange, then promised they would receive information on where to mail the gifts.

The scheme starts with a convincing invitation, either by email or social media, to sign up for what seems like a great, fun program. All you must do is provide your name, address, and personal information of a few additional friends, and tack this information on to a list that’s already started of people you’ve never met on the Internet. Next, it’s your turn to send an email or social media invitation to send a modest gift to a stranger along with their friends, family, and contacts.

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.

The BBB noted that pyramid schemes are illegal in the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service 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.

There is another layer of danger to participating in these schemes. When signing up, the alleged campaign organizer is asking for personal information such as a mailing address or an email. With just a few pieces of information, cyber thieves could expose you to future scams or commit identity theft.

The next time someone promises a bounty of gifts or cash by mail, email, or social media, BBB recommends the following: