That ‘holiday gift exchange’ Facebook post is technically an illegal scam

A gift exchange post going around on Facebook could land you on Santa's naughty list -- and in trouble with the law.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Sorry to be a grinch, but that viral Facebook post going around about a gift exchange is against the law.

You’ve probably seen something like this in your newsfeed:

Sometimes the message varies: You’re sending a bottle of wine or a book or it includes the men on the holiday fun. But the gist is that you mail one item, repost the message and receive a cavalcade of holiday gifts in return.


It sounds harmless. But it’s illegal.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service -- the law enforcement arm of the post office, which, yes, exists — classifies this sort of exchange as an unlawful chain letter. The classic version of this scheme just asks to send cold hard cash, but gifts count too.

Chain letters don’t work because the promise that all participants in a chain letter will be winners is mathematically impossible.

— U.S. Postal Inspection Service

“A chain letter is a ‘get rich quick’ scheme that promises that your mailbox will soon be stuffed full of cash if you decide to participate. You’re told you can make thousands of dollars every month if you follow the detailed instructions in the letter,” the Inspection Service website says. “They’re illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants.”

Note “other items of value” in that last sentence. Title 18 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute, considers this whole gift exchange thing a violation of the law, punishable by up to two years in prison. (It does note that mailing items of negligible value in this manner, like postcards or recipes, is not against the law.)

There’s also a logistical problem with these gift exchanges. If you invited only six people to the gift exchange, and they invited six people the next day, and so on, within 11 days every person in the United States would be a part of it. In two more days, every single person on Earth would be involved in your gift exchange.

“Chain letters don’t work because the promise that all participants in a chain letter will be winners is mathematically impossible,” the Postal Inspection Service notes. This is how pyramid schemes work too: by promising riches in exchange for recruiting more people to join.

Finally, there’s a privacy issue: The follow-up instructions on how to participate in the exchange ask you to put down your name and mailing address. You can’t know who will end up with that information. Potentially giving out your address to strangers is just a bad idea.

So this holiday season, don’t commit a federal violation. Plan a white elephant party or set up a one-to-one holiday gift exchange among your friends. Giving something to a stranger and “paying it forward” is a nice idea, but not as nice as staying within the legal limits of the postal code.

Invite Jessica to your holiday party on Twitter @jessica_roy


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