Pennsylvania – If you see posts on social media inviting you to take part in a Secret Sister exchange, ignore it.

The posts on Facebook and Instagram promise that, if you buy one gift and mail it to a stranger, that you will get in return as many as 36 gifts back.

However, this is just a new version of an age-old scam or a pyramid scheme. People who signed up early might actually get a few gifts, but the vast majority of people who send a gift will never get anything in return… and your personal information and address could be spread around.

From a mathematical standpoint, the scam also doesn’t make sense. In order for the Secret Sister exchange to deliver what it promises, it would take Santa Claus himself! By the time the hoax would get to the 11th round of gift sending, every person in America would have to participate for it to work.

There’s another problem with the Secret Sister exchange… it’s illegal. It not only violates the federal lottery statue by promising to deliver a big payout, but it also violates state anti-pyramid scheme laws.

Secret Sister


If you still like the idea of exchanging gifts, do it the old-fashioned way… with a Secret Santa exchange with people who you actually know.

Or if you like the idea of exchanging surprise gifts with strangers, the website Reddit is doing its 11th Reddit Gifts Secret Santa exchange. Although they cannot promise that you will get a gift, more than a million packages have been successfully sent and received over the past years from participants from more than 220 countries. If you’d like to be a part of it this year, visit The deadline to sign-up is the morning of Dec. 2.

Keep in mind that with both a traditional Secret Santa and the online Reddit exchange, you will only receive one gift. What makes the Secret Sister exchange a scam is that it promises that you will receive multiple gifts for every one gift that you send.


Official notice from the Better Business Bureau:

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.

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 and 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.

It should be noted that pyramid schemes are illegal in the US and Canada. The U.S. Postal Inspection Services 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:

  • Ignore it! Keep in mind that pyramid schemes are international. Chain letters involving money or valuable items and promise big returns are illegal. Stop and ask, is it worth breaking the law?
  • Report it instead to Canadian agencies or to the U.S. Postal inspection Services.
  • Report social media posts. If you receive an invitation to join a pyramid scheme on social media, report it. You can report these Facebook posts by clicking in the upper righthand corner and selecting “Report post” or “report photo.”
  • Never give your personal information to strangers. This will open you up to identity theft and other scams.
  • Be wary of false claims. Some pyramid schemes try to win your confidence by claiming they’re legal and endorsed by the government. These imposter schemes are false as the government will never endorse illegal activity. No matter what they claim, pyramid schemes will not make you rich. You will receive little to no money back on your “investment” or gift exchange.

More information on scams is available by visiting BBB Scam Tips and become an advocate by reporting scams to BBB Scam Tracker.

For more holiday tips, visit the BBB Holiday Tips page.