Digital Citizenship for Grown-Ups: The Secret Sister Gift Exchange is an Illegal Pyramid Scheme

Volume 1 of the Digital Citizenship for Grown-Up series explains how the Secret Sister gift exchange on Facebook is an illegal pyramid scheme

The holidays are just around the corner, and my Facebook feed is blowing up yet again with invites to participate in the Secret Sister Gift Exchange.

In case you’re not familiar with this yearly phenomenon, the gist is that you buy a $10 gift for one person and can potentially receive up to 36 gifts from your “Secret Sisters” that are also participating.

Sounds too good to be true right? That’s because it is. According to this article from the Better Business Bureau, the gift exchange is considered a pyramid scheme/gambling and is, therefore, illegal.

Yearly Warnings

News outlets post warnings about this particular scam every year, and I still see it pop up in my feed from people I’m friends with. According to this article, most people lose out on their money, but rarely report it because it’s such a small amount.

I tried warning friends that I saw post this scheme in years past by showing them these articles, but got angry responses because “I’ve done this before and got my gifts blah blah blah.” I decided it wasn’t worth it to keep trying to convince people individually, so I just posted the articles to my feed and hoped people took the time to read them.

I’m not a lawyer and I’m not your mother, so I’m not here to tell you what to do. However, I will say this – just because it’s worked for a few people in the past doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a risk and is still illegal.

Digital Citizenship Reality Check

Legalities aside, this whole scheme got me thinking about adults and digital citizenship. As grown-ups and educators, we teach our students not to share their personal information with random strangers online. And yet, here are grown-ups doing just that because they want free presents.

Sure, you could do a secret gift exchange with your close friends, but, for this to work, you have to have a huge group of women in order to get multiple presents. Here’s the text of a typical exchange (courtesy of Snopes).

Welcome to our secret sister gift exchange! Here’s how it works:

1) Send one gift value at least $10 to secret sister #1 below.

2) Remove secret sister’s name from #1; then move secret sister #2 to that spot.

3) Add your name to #2 with your info.

4) Then send this info to 6 other ladies with the updated name info

5) 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.

If you draw this out, it makes a pyramid shape. Just saying….

A meme from the television show The Office where Michael realizes he's part of a pyramid scheme.
The numbers

Anyway, let’s go back to the numbers. Based on the text above, you’ll need 6 friends, who have 6 friends, who have 6 friends, etc. The numbers grow at an exponential rate. Literally.

Do you want your name and address shared with that many people?

Who knows where you live?

Sure, you may be comfortable sharing your address with your Facebook friends, but what about all the other random strangers that are a friend of a friend of a friend? When was the last time you or your friends went through and looked at who you’re actually friends with on Facebook? I’ve gotten particularly leery about who I’m friends with, especially now that I’m an educator and also post pictures of my daughter. Are your friends that vigilant? Are they still friends with that random girl they met in a hostel in Eastern Europe that didn’t believe in showers or that the Earth was round? Do you want her to know where you live?

Have Fun…But Be Careful

It’s hard making real connections in this world, and schemes like these seem like an easy way to connect with “sisters” and have some fun. If you really want to do something like this, maybe set up a secret Santa exchange at work or with a few close friends online. This way, you’re still having fun, but you’re in control of your information and who has it. A gift exchange with random Internet strangers that ends up with you losing money won’t be nearly as fun, unless that Nigerian prince is involved…I got an email from him the other day and his exchange sounds legit 😉

Volume 1 of the Digital Citizenship for Grown-Up series explains how the Secret Sister gift exchange on Facebook is an illegal pyramid scheme

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