Police: Holiday gift exchange on social media is illegal


SALISBURY, Md. – A popular holiday gift exchange is circulating on social media but officials are warning consumers to think twice before you click post.

“The thing with a pyramid scheme is you don’t actually know what the benefit actually is,” says Lt. Christopher Davala with the Maryland State Police Salisbury Barrack.

Local police are speaking out about a “Secret Sister” gift exchange, which is a social media post popular among young women.

“I first read it and I was like, ‘Oh it’s like a giving tree’ which is something I’ve done in my church,” says Julianna Mirenzi, a sophomore at Salisbury University.

It starts with someone copying and pasting the post then inviting others to participate.

“Pyramid schemes, there’s one real benefactor, someone who starts the pyramid scheme. And then they send out information saying send me 10 dollars and then give me other names and then we’ll send you more names and then they’ll start sending you the money,” says Lt. Davala.

In this instance, participants are promised anywhere from six to 36 gifts back in the mail.

“The holiday season is coming up and people like receiving gifts and stuff like that so you can give one gift and receive plenty,” says Lisa Nti Nyamekye, a senior at Salisbury University.

But police say exchanges like this are not only pyramid schemes, they’re simply not safe.

“So some of the flags that are throwing out that concern me right away is it doesn’t matter where you live. In that you don’t know where and who is going to be sending you things, if in deed you do get something,” says Lt. Davala.

Officials say people are often left empty handed and never end up receiving their gifts in the mail. “It only takes one person to break that chain though. Pyramid schemes are considered illegal.”

United States Postal Inspection Services says these exchanges are a form of illegal gambling and participants may face jail time, fines or even a lawsuit for mail fraud.

“Wow that’s crazy. I wouldn’t expect it to be illegal,” says Mirenzi.

But a good rule of thumb is: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. “If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. And there’s usually some underlying fine print that you’re probably going to get scammed out of something,” says Lt. Davala.

Police tell 47 ABC, it’s difficult to crack down on exchanges like this. They say because it happens on the internet it’s hard to figure out which agency is responsible to enforce the law.

Officials say if you see a post like this one the best thing to do is not participate and report it. If you see a scam or exchange like this you’re encouraged to report it to the Better Business Bureau on their website.

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