Beware of “Secret Sister Gift Exchange” Schemes

Secret Sister Gift Exchange Hoax

A series of messages being posted via Facebook and other social media outlets are inviting people to participate in “secret sister” gift exchange schemes.   The posts claim that, if you send one  $10 gift to the secret sister listed in the number one spot on the gift exchange list, add your own details, and then send the message to “6 other ladies”, you will end up receiving 36 gifts as a result.

The  idea sounds reasonable in theory and many people are jumping on board in the hope of getting the promised 36 gifts for just a $10 outlay.

However, these schemes simply do not work. They never have and they never will. Such chain letter schemes have been around in various forms for donkey’s years. Many versions ask you to send a cash amount such as $5 with the promise of getting hundreds of dollars in return.  But, be it cash, secret sister gifts, or other items of value, the underlying idea is the same. And such schemes always fail because they rely for success on all participants not only sending the money or gift, but sending it to the right people and being entirely honest in the process.   In a warning about chain letter schemes published on its website, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) notes:

Chain letters don’t work because the promise that all participants in a chain letter will be winners is mathematically impossible. Also, many people participate, but do not send money to the person at the top of the list. Some others create a chain letter that lists their name numerous times–in various forms with different addressee. So, in reality, all the money in a chain is going to one person.

Moreover in some jurisdictions, including the United States where many of the posts originate, such a gift scheme is actually illegal.  The USPIS article further notes:

There’s at least one problem with chain letters. They’re illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants. 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.

Another worrying aspect of such gift exchange scenarios is that, by participating, you may be publicly sharing personal information such as your name, address and possibly other identifying details and have no control over where this information will end up. Fraudsters who get hold of such lists could use the information to launch targeted scam attacks against participants.

Of course, Secret Santa exchanges at your work place, community group, or among family and friends work very well and are often an enjoyable Christmas tradition. But, be sure sure to steer well clear of online secret sister strangers apparently bearing gifts. Any scheme in which you will supposedly receive a flood of gifts  in exchange for sending just one won’t work as described and may well be illegal.


Welcome to our secret sister gift exchange! Here’s how it works:Send one gift value at least $10 to secret sister #1 below.

Remove secret sister’s name from #1; then move secret sister #2 to that spot.
Add your name to #2 with your info.
Then send this info to 6 other ladies with the updated name info

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.

USPIS – Chain Letters