The illegal reality of online gift exchanges


Story by Amy Cutlip, Reporter
Photo courtesy of

“You better watch out” — this time of year is notorious for online “Secret Sister” gift exchange scams.

The posts, usually shared on Facebook or sent via private message, first appeared in 2015, and have already begun making the rounds on social media this holiday season.

Here’s how it works: each “sister” purchases one gift, and gets up to 36 in return. Still confused? Let’s break it down further. Each participant must sign up six new “sisters,” and give them the address of the person ahead of them in line. If everything goes according to plan, each member gets three dozen items having sent out only one.

If it seems too good to be true, that’s because it is.

According to the Better Business Bureau, this type of gift exchange is against the law: “[online] gift exchanges are illegal gambling and participants could be subject to penalties for mail fraud.” Moreover, pyramid schemes are a felony in Michigan, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 or seven years in prison, according to the Attorney General.

In addition to being illegal, the “Secret Sister” exchange is dangerous: your name and address could easily fall into the wrong hands. Participants share each other’s addresses, not their own, which makes it even more difficult to screen participants for potential stranger-danger. This is especially concerning given the schemes overwhelmingly target young women.

To help combat the spread of these scams, the Better Business Bureau suggests: “if you receive a chain letter … especially one that involves money or gifts, ignore it. Report the post to Facebook.” As always, use your best judgement on the internet, and never give your address to strangers or people you do not trust.

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