The Better Business Bureau Gives the Lowdown on Chain Letters

April 05, 2009
Everybody's received them — chain letters or e-mail messages that promise a big return on a small investment. The promises include unprecedented good luck, mountains of recipes, or worse, huge financial rewards for sending as little as $5 to someone on a list or making a telephone call.

The simplest chain letters contain a list of names and addresses with instructions to send something — usually a small sum of money — to the person at the top of the list, remove that name from the list, and add your own name to the bottom. Then, the instructions direct you to mail or e-mail copies of the letter to a certain number of other people, along with directions on how they should "continue the chain."

The theory behind chain letters is that by the time your name gets to the top of the list, so many people will be involved that you'll be inundated with whatever the chain promises to deliver. One recently circulated e-mail chain letter promised earnings of "$50,000 or more within in the next 90 days of sending e-mail."

Whether you receive a chain letter by snail mail or e-mail — especially one that involves money — the Better Business Bureau and its partner the Federal Trade Commission remind you that:
  • Chain letters that involve money or valuable items and promise big returns are illegal. If you start a chain letter or send one, you are breaking the law.
  • Chances are you will receive little or no money back on your “investment.” Despite the claims, a chain letter will never make you rich.
  • Some chain letters try to win your confidence by claiming they’re legal and endorsed by the government. Not so.
  • If you've been a target of a chain e-mail scam, contact your Internet Service Provider and forward the e-mail to the FTC at

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service offers information about chain letters at Or you can call the Postal Inspection Service toll-free at 1-888-877-7644.

Start With Trust. For more reliable consumer tips, go to; call 970-484-1348 or 800-564-0371.