Identified Scam:

Secret Sister Gift Exchange Explained (Don't Take Part!)

A gift exchange seems like a great way to spread holiday cheer and take part in the season of giving, but receiving a gift in return is rarely ever the case.
Updated 30 November 2021
Secret Sister Gift Exchange Explained (Don't Take Part!)
Identified Scam:
Key Finding

Gift exchanges are promoted on social media towards the end of the year, promising several gifts in return for one. 

Key Risk

You could buy a gift and not receive any in return as promised.

Sections on this page
  1. How the Secret Sister Gift Exchange Works
  2. How to Beat Secret Sister Gift Exchanges
  3. Red Flags to Watch Out For
  4. What Happens If You Fall for a Secret Sister Gift Exchange?
  5. Frequently Asked Questions

Whenever the holiday season is just around the corner, we’re bombarded with commercials and advertisements on the latest sales on gifts and experiences. In recent years, chain letter-type gift exchanges (commonly known as secret sister gift exchanges) have made their way onto social media platforms, enticing people to join to receive several gifts from others. 

It builds on the old practice of mailing copies of actual letters to multiple people, which started in the late 1800s. Fast forward to the 20th century where people began using chain letters to:

  • Promote religion (e.g., through prayer distribution)
  • Send people money
  • Entertain themselves (e.g., kids would send chain letters for fun)

Although some chain letters have been innocent enough, many were lesser versions of pyramid schemes, promising huge returns for minimal investment. The secret sister gift exchange is very much like that, but instead of exchanging money, you’re sending gifts. Either way, it’s a scam.

How the Secret Sister Gift Exchange Works

The secret sister gift exchange is also known as a “gift exchange,” “holiday gift exchange,” or “social media gift exchange.” The premise is simple—send a gift to receive multiple gifts. Here’s how it works. 

You See a Post for the Secret Sister Gift Exchange on Social Media

One of the most common platforms to see a post for a gift exchange is on Facebook, whether through a direct message or a post on one of your friends’ pages. Instagram is also a common platform for people to post about gift exchanges, usually through direct messages or stories. 

These posts will start popping up in November, around Black Friday sales when people usually start thinking about buying gifts.

The post will read something like this:

Anyone want to join in on this fun?

SECRET SISTER is back! I am looking for 6 or more ladies interested in a holiday gift exchange. Doesn’t matter where you live—you are welcome to join. You have to buy one gift valued at least $10 and send it to your secret sister. You will then receive 6-36 gifts in return. This is so much fun! 

I loved sending a gift to a complete stranger knowing that she would have a bright spot in her day because of it! Let  me know if you’re interested, and I will send you information about your sister. Who’s with me? Just comment “I’m in.” 

You’re “In”

This seems like a great idea—give a gift to a stranger and receive several gifts in return. Who doesn’t love that? Also, it’s your friend who is running it (or so it seems), so it must be legit, right? Wrong. It’s likely the gift exchange was started by a complete stranger and what your friend posted was just a copy+paste job. 

You opt-in and receive further instructions via direct message (which also is almost an entire copied and pasted message) that looks something like this:

You’ll be sending a gift to:

Jane Smith, 1123 Alley Road, Portland, OR 97035

And for the exchange, copy the text from my original post onto your page. Send my address to those who answered just like you did to my story. 

Lastly, put your own address below, where mine is currently, when people reply to you. 

Anne Gable, 98 Trinity Road, Houston, TX 77001

Example instructions for secret sister gift exchange.
You'll receive instructions on what to do next after signing up for the secret sister gift exchange.

You Send the Gift and Post About the Exchange

After sending the gift to the address as instructed, you post the same message to your social media page. At this point, it’s a waiting game. You just need to sit back and wait for your friends to opt-in so you can send them the same messages and instructions that you received (with the addresses changed). 

You may receive interest from some friends, but you may not receive any interest at all. 

Do Not Opt-In for Expensive Gift Exchanges

Since there’s such little chance that you’ll receive anything in return, don’t participate in gift exchanges that require expensive gifts unless you’re prepared to eat that cost. A higher minimum also decreases your likelihood of getting others to partake in the exchange. 

Your Gift Never Arrives

Some people may receive a gift, but more often than not, you won’t receive anything and definitely not 36 gifts in return as suggested. 

How this scam works is just like a pyramid scheme. You buy one gift, recruit six people, who recruit six others. The second group of six are the ones who are told to send their gifts to you. If you successfully recruit six people, who also successfully recruit six people, you should receive 36 gifts in total. 

How the secret sister gift exchange works.
In a secret sister gift exchange, the third row of 36 people are told to send you (at the top) a gift. This only works if you successfully recruit 6 people, who all then recruit 6 of their own (who also then follow through and send the gifts).

However, the reality is that it’s rare that you’ll get six people who actually follow the instructions, let alone recruit an additional six people each. Additionally, you’re placing your trust in all of these people actually to send a gift in the first place—there are no guarantees. 

Although you’re not losing that much (usually around $10 + postage), you’ve still wasted your money and your time, not to mention roped your friends into a scam unknowingly. If you’re a giving person, perhaps sending a stranger a gift without receiving anything in return is simply getting into the holiday spirit. 

However, if you’re buying into a gift exchange to receive several gifts in return, let this be a warning to you.

Identity Theft is Possible

Remember, when you send your address to your friends who have signed up for your gift exchange, that information is being sent to others who you don’t know at all. As a result, you risk having your information sent to scammers, putting you at risk of identity theft.

How to Beat Secret Sister Gift Exchanges

It can be hard to ignore posts and messages from your friends, especially when they’re promoting giving and building community. But just remember that they weren’t the ones who came up with the idea or started the “chain.” They saw the post from one of their connections, who saw it from one of their connections, and so on. 

Your friends have been conned just as you have. 

If you share a lot of mutual connections with your friend, you’ll have even less chance of getting people to participate in your gift exchange as they’ve probably already seen the post and either ignored it or have already joined your friend’s exchange. Just like pyramid schemes, the later to the game that you are (i.e., lower on the pyramid), the less likely you’ll get anything in return. 

You May Receive a Gift

There is a chance that you will receive one or two gifts back, but the chances of receiving more than that decrease exponentially. 

If you see a post about a gift exchange, don’t believe the hype. Just ignore it and don’t sign up. Of course, if you’re not doing it to receive gifts in return, there’s no harm in buying a stranger a gift. 

Red Flags to Watch Out For

It’s easy to spot a sketchy gift exchange. Any gift exchange that requires you to send one gift to receive many in return falls into this category. 

Example of a secret sister gift exchange post on Facebook.
Example of a Facebook post promoting a secret sister gift exchange.

Some common elements that point to this scheme include:

  • The overuse of positive language aimed to encourage you to join. For example, things like:
    • This is so much fun! 
    • I love these so much!
    • This is such a great way to send some positive vibes!
    • We could all use some happiness. 
  • Anything that uses the terms “secret sister,” “gift exchange,” or something similar. 
  • Posts that are clearly a copy and paste job from someone else (you can usually tell if the post doesn’t seem like something your friend would have posted). 
  • A promise to more than double your returns in gifts. (Many gift exchanges promise 6-36 gifts in return by sending just one gift.)

Example post
Part of the instructions you receive is to copy and paste text about the gift exchange onto your own social page to recruit more people.

What Happens If You Fall for a Secret Sister Gift Exchange?

Signing up for a gift exchange isn’t the end of the world. Generally, gift exchanges set the dollar amount for gifts at something small, like $10 or $15. You’re out this amount of money, but it could be worse. 

However, if you opted in to a gift exchange that required a gift costing a minimum of $50 but don’t receive anything in return, that’s going to hurt a little more. 

You’re Not Obligated

Remember, even if you signed up for a gift exchange, you’re not obligated to participate. This is why these things are not reliable—most people receive the instructions then never follow through. 

You’re not signing any contract or agreement of any kind—you can back out at any time. Your friend may follow up with you, but you’re not legally required to send a gift or repost about the exchange on your own social media pages.

What Happens If You Send a Gift?

If you went ahead and sent a gift to someone but didn’t receive a gift back, there’s nothing you can do. Secret sister gift exchanges are not business transactions that come with refund policies. There’s no one you can contact to make a complaint or get your money back. Remember, it’s not your friend who is at fault. They probably spent money and also didn’t receive several gifts back as promised. 

Be On Alert for Signs of Identity Theft

Your social media accounts, name, and address have now been sent to complete strangers, opening you to identity theft. Not only do you not these people enough to trust them, but there’s a chance their social profiles are hacked by scammers who can then find your information in their direct messages. 

After giving your information out, you should be on alert for signs that someone may have stolen your identity, such as:

  • Emails and letters from companies that you don’t do business with 
  • Strange activity on your credit report
  • Receiving email newsletters you didn’t sign up for
  • Receiving two-factor authentication codes to your phone or email without trying to log into your accounts (a sign that someone is trying to access your accounts)
  • Receiving packages you never ordered (this could be part of a brushing scam)

Luckily, there’s a limited number of things that hackers can do with your mailing address, so your credit report and bank accounts should be safe, but you should still monitor all of your accounts for suspicious activity, just in case. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are secret sister gift exchanges illegal?

According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), these types of gift exchanges are classified as pyramid schemes, which are, indeed, illegal. You shouldn't join, nor should you promote secret sister gift exchanges. 

How does a secret sister gift exchange work?

Secret sister gift exchanges require you to buy a single gift and recruit others to buy gifts. You give your recruits your address, which they then pass on to their own recruits to send you a gift. These types of exchanges promise significant returns for very little investment, but that's rarely the case.