In today’s edition of “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” there’s a Facebook post that’s been travelling across the social media platform recently, advertising an anonymous Secret Santa exchange in which participants will get 36 gifts in exchange for one. Dubbed the “Secret Sister Gift Exchange,” the gift swap sounds awesome, except for one key issue: It’s a scam. And also probably illegal.
According to Snopes, variants of the Facebook Secret Sister Gift Exchange began showing up on social media in late October. In these messages, posters invited people to join the Secret Santa exchange, saying that, in exchange for them each sending a single $10 gift, they would soon receive 36 gifts. The messages would look something like this version from Snopes:
Welcome to our secret sister gift exchange! Here's how it works:
1) Send one gift value at least $10 to secret sister #1 below.
2) Remove secret sister's name from #1; then move secret sister #2 to that spot.
3) Add your name to #2 with your info.
4) Then send this info to 6 other ladies with the updated name info
5) Copy the secret sister request that I posted on my wall, to your own wall. If you cannot complete this within 1 week please notify me, as it isn't fair to the ladies who have participated and are waiting for their own gifts to arrive. You might want to order directly from a web-based service (Amazon, or any other online shop) which saves a trip to the post office. Soon you should receive 36 gifts! What a deal, 36 gifts for giving just one! Be sure to include some information about yourself ... some of your favorites. Seldom does anyone drop out because it's so much fun to send a gift to someone you may or may not know ... and of course it's fun to receive. You should begin receiving gifts in about 2 weeks if you get your letters out to your 6 people right away.
It turns out that these supposed Secret Santa exchanges are simply fancy techno versions of the chain letters that used to show up in our mailboxes. University of South Florida mass communications instructor Kelli Burns explained to 8News Richmond, “This is a typical pyramid scheme. We’re just seeing this on Facebook this time instead of the old way of using letters, and Facebook allows it to spread a lot faster.” Snopes says that they’ve gotten reports of a few people who have received one gift in the exchange, but nothing close to the three dozen promised.
Furthermore, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, chain letters are illegal. The agency’s website states,
Chain letters are a form of gambling, and sending them through the mail (or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate) violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute.
The fact that the Secret Sister Santa Exchange is spreading via social media doesn’t make it any less illegal, since gifts will travel through the mail. USPIS explains, “Regardless of what technology is used to advance the scheme, if the mail is used at any step along the way, it is still illegal.”
If you want to get involved in a legitimate, non-scammy online Secret Santa, check out Reddit’s annual Secret Santa. The platform matches users, who can check out each other’s Reddit histories to find the perfect gift (RedditGifts recommends that “Santas” go for gifts of around $20). In 2013, the Reddit Secret Santa exchange make the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest online Secret Santa, with 89,421 participants. People all over the world got involved, including a number of celebrities. One lucky person got Bill Gates as her Secret Santa; the tech mogul donated a cow in her name to Heifer International, a nonprofit that works to end global hunger and poverty.
There are also a number of online tools available to help you set up your own Secret Santa among friends, coworkers, and family members. Elfster, Secret Santa Generator, and DrawNames can all help you organize your gift exchange (for free!); the websites will make the random selections and email participants with their assignments. They’ll also let you put restrictions on the matching (so that spouses don’t get each other, for instance).