BBB Consumer Alert: Beware of Holiday Gift Exchanges Circulating on Social Media

December 09, 2016

Better Business Bureau is warning consumers to beware of holiday gift exchanges circulating on social media right now. Examples of this scheme seen this holiday season include the “secret sister” gift exchange, the wine exchange and a book exchange. While these exchanges seem harmless enough, they are in fact illegal to participate in.

In all of these examples, the participants are asked to purchase a gift, book or bottle of wine with a particular value, generally $10 - $15, and forward it to a stranger whose name is at the top of the list.  The participant then adds his or her own name and address to the bottom of the list before sharing the message with their friends or followers on social media.

The message claims that participants will receive at least 6 and as many as 36 gifts, books or bottles of wine from strangers. Of course, participating in this kind of gift exchange comes with a catch - you have to disclose some personal information, such as your home address. 

“It’s a typical chain letter," said Randy Hutchinson, BBB of the Mid-South president. “The best thing to do is ignore it completely – don’t participate and don’t share the message.”

Gift exchanges such as this gain a lot of traction on social media during the holiday season. Participants are drawn in by the promise of getting big returns on a small investment. It’s not much of a risk to see what comes back. But chain letters will always fail. 

The people who participate in the initial “generation” of the letter may see some return on their investment, that is, they may get at least one bottle of wine, book or gift. But at some point, there aren’t enough people left who haven’t already received a copy of the letter for the next generation to work, and the chain collapses. The promise that all participants in a chain letter will get the stated number of items is mathematically impossible.

“Would you give your home address to a stranger on the street?” Hutchinson added. “Probably not, so don’t share it with a stranger online. You could be opening yourself up to identity theft.”

Chain letters are essentially forms of gambling and sending items of any value through the mail violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, of the Postal Lottery Statute.

Consumers who get the message on Facebook or other social media should report the post to the social media site and file a scam report on BBB’s Scam Tracker tool at