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Facebooks Secret Sister Gift Exchange Is a Scam — And May Be Illegal

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The biggest secret about the “Secret Sister Gift Exchange” invitation that has been blowing up Facebook since October? It’s bogus. The note that has made the rounds on social media promising —chain-letter style — that anyone sending a gift valued $10 or more to one person (and listing six other women’s names to continue the process) will “receive 36 gifts!” in two weeks is a pyramid scheme. “We’re just seeing this on Facebook this time instead of the old way of using letters,” University of South Florida mass communications instructor Kelli Burns told WFLA, adding, “Facebook allows it to spread a lot faster.” b

Conducting this call on Facebook, Burns continued, is an even bigger foul because of the personal information that women have to share to participate. “It’s against Facebook’s terms of agreement,” she explained. “So there’s the potential that Facebook…could block your account.”

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There’s also the little wrinkle of legality. Hoax busters Snopes.com report that “according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), gift chains aren’t just ‘mathematically impossible,’ they’re also illegal.” Basically, if the $10-plus present you put in the mail is considered by the Post Office to be “of value” and the exchange promises the participant a “substantial return,” the USPIS declares, game over. “Chain letters are a form of gambling,” reads a statement on the service’s site, “and sending them through the mail (or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate) violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute.”

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So why are so many parents getting sucked into this sham? The fact that the call-to-action comes from friends apparently plays a big part. “The people we trust are on Facebook,” Dr. Janet Johnson, a social media scholar and clinical assistant professor at Univeristy of Texas-Dallas, told Fortune in a Sept. 30 article about the psychology of social media hoaxes. “We know these people, so when my friend, who I trust, posts this information, I’m going to think ‘this must be trustworthy information.’”

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Seeing “Secret Sister Gift Exchange” posts over and over in your feed can also make them seem more legit. “The more times we see something, the more it becomes truth in our minds,” said Johnson. “How many times has Morgan Freeman died on Twitter?”