After first going viral in 2015, the “Secret Sister Exchange” is back in time for the holiday season on Facebook and other social media -- both nationwide and in northwest Florida.
“Don’t believe it; and you know that old saying, ‘if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,’” says Tammy Ward with the Better Business Bureau in Pensacola. “And if somebody that you know of has sent it to you, just let them know, ‘hey, this is a scam.’”
Tammy Ward is with the Better Business Bureau in Pensacola. She says the idea for Secret Sister is based on chain letters that pre-date the Internet, email, and social media. In reality, it’s a classic pyramid scheme and illegal gambling.
“That ask you to send to a certain number to people like a dollar or something else; it’s been around so long,” said Ward. “The scammers are using the new technology to try to get people to do things they normally wouldn’t do.”
The most common scam appears to be a suggestion to send a gift with a certain value – let’s say ten dollars – to Secret Sister number one. Remove secret sister's name from No. 1; then move secret sister No. 2 to that spot. Add your name to No. 2 with your info, then send this info to six other ladies with the updated name information.
“But here’s the catch: when you tell them that you want to sign up for it and they send you all the information, it includes you having to give them your full name and your home address,” Ward said. “That way you’re going to get possibly no gifts, and how many people may get your home information and your personal information. Just by you giving it to them.”
The letter may direct you to order from a web-based service such as Amazon -- or any other online retailer – it promises you could receive up to 36 gifts from the one you send. Ward says be careful about what you read.
“And it could be coming from a friend of yours that had has just copied and pasted it; because if you do read it online, you’re going to see some of the words are misplaced and that kind of thing,” said Ward. “And they’re not going to give you the details, until you Instant Message them; which means that they also have your information.”
While there’s a lot of gray area on the legality of such messages online, Ward says it’s crystal clear that sending chain letters through the U.S. Mail is illegal.
“Putting things out there like that and you’re going to be using the Postal Service; that’s where you’re going to get into their codes,” says Ward. “You may or may not get caught, but if you’re thinking you’re going to get six to 36 gifts just by you sending one, you’re going to be sitting there and having a really bad Christmas. And you probably won’t even get coal.”
There’s a fairly simple way to avoid problems with Secret Sister, says the BBB’s Tammy Ward – ignore it altogether.
“Your information is out there already; and it doesn’t take much for someone to get more information on you and maybe your address is all that they need,” Ward says. “And there’s a big identity theft possibility involved in this as well.”
If you encounter a Secret Sister or any other form of chain letter or online post, check with www.bbb.org before getting involved in suspicious and possibly illegal activity. You can also contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at www.usps.com, or at 1-888-877-7644.