Cheryl Parson: ‘Secret Sister’ scam not worth hassle it causes


By Cheryl Parson - Better Business Bureau

Around the country, many offices and groups have long held “Secret Santa” gift exchanges. Pretty simple stuff — participants put their name in a hat, everyone then draws a name and buys that person a gift. Everyone has fun trying to guess who their Secret Santa is! It is a great source for goofy coffee mugs and gift packs of jelly.

Now, just in time for the holiday season, scammers are “giving” consumers the opportunity to get up to 36 gifts with a new version of an old chain letter sweeping across social media, the Secret Sister.

Instead of a letter arriving in your mailbox, you receive an invitation to participate in Secret Sister from various social media platforms, with Facebook seeming to be the scammers’ favorite.

Here is an example of a recent Facebook post:

“Anyone interested in a holiday gift exchange? I don’t care where you live – you are welcome to join. I need six (or more) ladies of any age to participate in the Secret Sister gift exchange. You only have to buy ONE gift valued at $10 or more, and send it to one secret sister and you will receive 6–36 in return!

“Let me know if you are interested, and I will send you the information!

“Please don’t ask to participate if you’re not willing to spend the $10.

“TIS THE SEASON! and it’s getting closer. COMMENT if YOU’RE IN, and I will send you a private message. Please don’t comment if you’re not interested and are not willing to send the gift!”

Sounds like fun. It is reasonable in theory and supposed to work like this: six friends invite six more friends, who all send gifts to the participant in spot 1 before that person’s name is removed from the list. The process repeats itself with the participant in the 2 spot, and so on. Of course, participating in this gift exchange comes with a catch — you must disclose personal information, such as your home address.

Secret Sister is a form of a pyramid scheme which involves people at the top of the pyramid benefiting and everyone else probably losing out. Your chances of being in at the beginning of the Secret Sister scam are minimal at best.

According to the BBB, “The U.S. Postal Inspection Service says gift exchanges of this nature are illegal gambling, and participants could be subject to penalties for mail fraud.”

As one expert put it, “You definitely won’t receive a pile of gifts, but you could be dragged into some sort of dubious postal scam, with possible mail fraud penalties instead.” Just like most scams, the con artists typically ask for various personal information. You may end up handing them not only your name, address and phone number, but also a variety of online profiles they can access. It’s everything an enterprising criminal needs!

We suggest the following tips to anyone who thinks they may have been targeted:

• Check with the BBB before becoming involved in suspicious and possibly illegal activity.

• To avoid a scam, the best thing to do is completely ignore it altogether. Do not give out personal information to anyone.

• Chain letters and pyramid schemes via social media or the U.S. mail that involve money or valuable items in the promise of big returns are illegal. If you start a chain letter or send one, you are breaking the law.

Avoid the online Secret Sister stuff and stick with the tried and true Secret Santa exchange. You’ll know who you’re buying for. And you may just receive a really goofy coffee mug!

By Cheryl Parson

Better Business Bureau

Cheryl Parson is president of the Better Business bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at

Cheryl Parson is president of the Better Business bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at

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