Gift exchanges may leave you empty handed ... or worse

Published on Saturday, 2 December 2017 12:49 - Written by MECHELE AGBAYANI MILLS, Better Business Bureau

Sending a stranger one gift and getting up to 36 items in return may sound like a great idea, but you might be breaking the law. While gift exchanges grow in popularity during the holiday season, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s gambling and pyramid scheme laws, gift chains like this are illegal and participants could be subject to penalties for mail fraud. The Better Business Bureau serving Central East Texas urges consumers to use caution before participating in a gift exchange.

Here is how the scheme works: If a consumer purchases one gift for a stranger, he or she will receive as many as 36 gifts in return. This type of gift exchange may seem reasonable enough in theory - six friends invite six or more friends, who all send gifts to the participant in the first spot before that person’s name is removed. This process repeats itself with the participant in the second spot and so on. Of course, starting this gift exchange comes with a “catch.” You must disclose your personal information such as your home address. This is a typical pyramid scheme.

Gift exchanges may seem harmless, but just like any other chain letter that asks for money or items of value, they are against the law. If you are looking for a way to help you get into the holiday spirit, this is certainly not it.

Whether you receive a chain letter by mail, email or social media, especially one that involves money or gifts, the BBB recommends:

- Start with trust. Check with the BBB before becoming involved in suspicious and possibly illegal activity.

- Don’t disclose personal information. In essence, the best thing to do is completely ignore it altogether. Do not give out any personal information to anyone, especially over social media.

- Mailing alcohol is illegal. As if the illegality of gift exchanges wasn’t bad enough, additionally, the United States Postal Service also deems the shipment of alcohol domestically or internationally as illegal activity. If you are shipping alcohol, you must be licensed and authorized to ship according to applicable federal or state laws and regulations of the origin and destination states.

- Be wary of buzz words. Certain phrases should raise a red flag. Don’t believe anything is “guaranteed” to do well or that offers low or “no risks” with a high return. Chances are you will receive little or no money back on your “investment.” Despite the claims, a chain letter will never make you rich. In most cases, you’ll get nothing at all.

- Report it. Go to BBB Scam Tracker. You can view reported scams in your area as well.

If you’ve been a target of a chain email scam, contact your internet service provider and forward the email to the FTC at

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service offers information about chain letters or you can call the Postal Inspection Service toll free 1-877-876-2455.

For more advice about how to be a savvy consumer, go to To report fraudulent activity or unscrupulous business practices, call the BBB at 903-581-5704 or go to BBB Scam Tracker.