Better Business Bureau Warns Online Shoppers To Be Careful Of Holiday Social Media Scams

Jim Gudas
November 23, 2019 - 11:47 am

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- People are being warned about an online gift exchange scam that’s common during the holiday season.

The “Secret Sister” gift exchange scam promises people they will get dozens of gifts if they agree to buy a gift worth about 10 dollars for someone else, according to Steve Bernas, CEO and president of the Better Business Bureau.

Bernas said people are encouraged to invite friends and family to take part in the "giving" but such online gift exchanges are often illegal pyramid schemes.

"You are just giving money away, you are not getting anything," Barnas said. "And unfortunately, they are illegal as well."

Bernas also said the online gift exchanges are used by identity thieves to steal personal information from victims.

The Better Business Bureau is reminding consumers that the online "Secret Sister" gift exchange and similar invitations are illegal and should be ignored. The campaign, which was first big in 2015, typically resurfaces around the holiday season, he said, and has again been circulating on social media sites, in particular Facebook.

The post claims that participants will receive up to 36 gifts in exchange for sending one gift valued at $10. Users are encouraged to invite others to participate in the holiday gift exchange, where they will receive information on where to mail gifts.

But there is one big problem with gift chains like "Secret Sister:" Those who chose to participate could find that they are involved in an illegal "pyramid scheme." The U.S. Postal Inspection Service says that gift exchanges are illegal gambling, if money or other items of value are requested with assurance of a sizeable return for those who participate, and participants could be subject to penalties for mail fraud.

Additionally, anyone who decides to participate in programs like these become much more likely targets of identity theft, Barnas said. 

"Those who get involved often do so thinking that the amount needed to participate is so small it's worth the risk if they'll receive gifts worth maybe a couple hundred dollars," he said. "The best thing people can do is avoid it altogether, if you receive an invitation to participate, ignore it, it's not worth it."

The BBB is also warning consumers of Instagram scams that have been reported after online shoppers never received hard-to-find sneakers. Visit the bureau's website to learn more about the sneaker scam.

How to Avoid Social Media Sales Scams

Research the seller. Read the comments and reviews of other consumers on the seller’s social media accounts and website, and on If other buyers make negative comments or report not receiving merchandise they paid for, steer clear. Review the seller’s website carefully to make sure it is secure and legitimate before making a purchase. If they say they are an authorized reseller, verify that claim.

Use a safe payment method. Apps like Venmo, Facebook Pay, CashApp, and the like may seem like convenient ways to pay, but this kind of app was designed to allow friends, family members, and coworkers to send each other money. BBB advises against using payment apps with stragners; instead, use a credit card.

Don’t be pressured to make a quick purchase. Many scammers try to pressure you to buy, even if the deal doesn’t quite feel right. They may claim “this is the last pair of sneakers they have in stock” or “it’s a deal that won’t last long because the sneakers are a collectible pair worth much more than the selling price.” Never purchase under pressure. Do your research first, then buy.