Secret Sister Facebook scam: ‘Gift exchange’ con returns ahead of Christmas 2020

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 19 November 2020 08:32 GMT
Festive 'Secret Sister' pyramid scheme is spreading on social media

“Gift exchange” scams are appearing across Facebook again as the Christmas season approaches.

The scams – sometimes going by the name “secret sister” – are particularly worrying because they appear to be legitimate, are similar to honest gift exchanges, and take advantage of people’s desire to connect with others at Christmas.

But while they might appear innocent, they in fact something like a pyramid scheme: only sustainable as long as somebody else is getting ripped off.

The scam works by asking people involved to post on Facebook, asking their friends if they want to get involved in a gift exchange. If they do, they are told they will send out one gift but will receive 36 back from anonymous people – hence the name “secret sister” – seemingly making it an obviously good idea.

Anyone taking part will first be encouraged to send a gift, worth $10 or some other relatively low value, to a person whose name appears at the top of a list. Once that person has received a gift, they can be removed from the list, so that the next person will also get to receive one; when you get involved by sending a gift, your name is added to the bottom of the list, in the hope that eventually you’ll get to receive a number of gifts in addition to the one you sent.

As the group grows, so will the number of gifts. So people are encouraged to spread the word as much and quickly as possible, tagging friends to ensure that it spreads across Facebook – and it is working, with the posts proving popular, as they have in many years in the past.

The idea – sending out only one gift, receiving many in return – sounds too good to be true. And that’s because it is.

Such gift exchanges are a form of pyramid scheme. If you do win, and that is unlikely, it’s only as a result of people lower down the chain from you losing out – just as with any other pyramid scheme.

It is mathematically impossible for everyone to receive the gifts as promised, and it becomes practically more unlikely that any particular person will the later they join in with the scam.

People at the start may well send out one gift and receive many, since others will be joining behind them. But they will then need other people to join, and so on; very quickly, the number of people who are needed to join grows so that it requires more people than are alive on Earth.

Still, some people might well get the number of gifts they were promised, if they are early enough. This isn’t the kind of scam that defrauds everyone who gets involved, and so anyone you see, and people posting that they have done well out of it may not be lying.

But whether they are being genuine or not, someone somewhere will be losing out, and anyone get involved is likely to be in that group. Even if you do happen to get the gifts that are promised, you are only doing so because other people aren’t.

As such, the safest thing to do is to ignore any Facebook friends who offer this kind of gift exchange, or send them an article like this one to explain the dangers of such scams.

There are plenty of legitimate gift exchanges on Facebook and other online communities – ones in which you get tied to particular people who you know, and where you promise to send just one gift to each other – and your time and money is much better spent on those, if you want to spread some Christmas cheer.

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