If someone told you that by sending a $10 gift to a stranger you would be guaranteed to receive 30 gifts in return, would you do it? That's essentially the teaser that's been sent out on social media this holiday season in what's become known as the "Secret Sister Gift Exchange", and the proposition is appealing enough to have gained a significant following. But unfortunately, the whole thing is a complete farce. So what is the Secret Sister Gift Exchange on Facebook for real? It's not full of the holiday spirit like many think.
The Secret Sister Gift Exchange first began making headlines in 2015, so this is actually the third holiday season we've been putting up with this bologna. The popular post currently circulating reads something like this, with detailed instructions following after:
Anyone interested in a secret sister gift exchange? It doesn’t matter where you live! You only have to buy ONE gift valued at $10 or more and send it to one secret sister! You will get 6-36 in return. Let me know if you’re interested and I will send you the information. (Please don’t ask to participate if you are not willing to spend the $10)
Sounds kind of fun, right? Well unfortunately, it doesn't actually hold up mathematically. Back in 2015, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service tried to put an end to the Secret Sister gift hoax by breaking down the numbers for the public in a Facebook post. "Consider a typical pyramid that involves six individuals in the chain," the post reads. "Upon reaching the sixth level of participation, you’d have to attract more recruits than could be seated in Wrigley Field. The ninth level requires you to recruit all of Houston and the Washington Metro area combined — and you still wouldn’t have enough participants. The 11th round requires everyone in the United States to join in if the promise is to be fulfilled."
But it's not just the math that's faulty, it's the method, too. As the fact-checking website Snopes has pointed out, this form of chain mail is actually illegal; and I don't just mean for the organizers, I mean for the participants as well.
Many of us are familiar with the old-school version of chain letters that came through the regular old mail. Well, think of this as version 2.0. And according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) website, chain letters are "Illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants. Chain letters are a form of gambling, and sending them through the mail violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute."
The USPIS statement continues on to address more modern forms of chain letters such as the Secret Sister Gift Exchange. "Recently, high-tech chain letters have begun surfacing. They may be disseminated over the internet, or may require the copying and mailing of computer disks rather than paper. Regardless of what technology is used to advance the scheme, if the mail is used at any step along the way, it is still illegal."
Will you be thrown in jail for accidentally getting roped in to a pyramid scheme? Probably not. But according to the Better Business Bureau, you could face penalties for mail fraud, and is that a game you really want to play when the odds are good you won't even receive one single gift in return, much less 30?
That's right, most participants in such formats never receive a single gift on their doorstep, due to the aforementioned mathematical fallout. According to Forbes, some people who join the Secret Sister Gift Exchange may receive one gift, but those would be the rare exception. So if you're itching to do a secret gift exchange this year, pass on the virtual ones and go back to drawing names with Cousin Patty. Because even your wackiest relatives will be more reliable than this.
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