“Don’t let these schemes play off of your fears!” Beware of online gift scam

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MIAMI — It seems innocuous enough -- a gift exchange called “Secret Sister." But that secret is not what it appears to be.

If you've been on Facebook or Instagram you may have noticed a gift exchange offer that reads:

"You only have to buy ONE gift valued at $10 or more and send it to one secret sister and you will receive up to 36 in return!" 

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"Secret Sister" gift exchange posts popping up on sites like Facebook and Instagram.

"It seems to be along the same lines as the Secret Santa except it’s with social media.  It was posted on Facebook and I just thought, 'well, this looks like fun and it’s coming from a friend who I know very well' and it just looked like something that would be interesting to get into," explained Mary McCurry.

But when McCurry mentioned "Secret Sister" to a co-worker she quickly learned otherwise.

"'Oh, that’s a scam. That is something that, you know, is not legal and you need to not be involved in that,'" McCurry recalled.

Fortunately, McCurry never sent anything to anyone involved in the scheme, but she was disappointed.

"I thought it was something personal. I had seen that her family and some of our mutual friends had responded to it. So I really thought that this was something just between friends and family," McCurry said.

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Mary McCurry

Postal inspectors say the scam is similar to a chain letter or even a pyramid scheme.

Some people may receive gifts. However, for everyone to receive what they've been promised — new recruits must constantly join the group.

It's mathematically impossible to sustain.

If you see something like this online — be skeptical.

"They also play with your emotions.  They tell you, for example, it’s a Secret Sister exchange. It’s a great thing to do with your girlfriends online and you have to keep it secret so that you can benefit off of it and other people don’t.  Don’t let these schemes play off of your fears and your emotions.  Make sure that you do your research first," advised U.S. Postal Inspector Blanca Alvarez.

Postal inspectors say the scheme violates federal lottery laws and is also illegal in the many states, including Wisconsin, that have anti-pyramid scheme laws on the books.