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'Secret Sister Gift Exchange' isn't just a scam, it's illegal

Julie Ryan Evans is an editor and writer who has covered everything from Capitol Hill to the politics of preschool. A mother of two, a runner of races, and a gourmet chef wannabe, she currently lives outside of Orlando, Florida.

Don't be duped by this gift exchange that's taking over Facebook

Everybody loves presents, right? The Secret Sister Gift Exchange currently making its way around the internet sounds fantastic. You send one gift of $10 to the first person on the list, add your information and some names, post on Facebook, and voilà — you will soon receive 36 gifts. Amazing!

However, like most things that seem too good to be true, this is too. While no one is thinking they're going to get a new iPad through such an exchange, the thought of opening up your mailbox and getting 36 gifts — even if they're $10 trinkets — is alluring when most of us only open junk mail and bills day after day.

More: 50 gifts for her that she won't return the day after Christmas

There are some serious problems, though, with this type of pyramid scheme. First, the whole exchange just doesn't work. The U.S. Postal Service actually says such pyramid schemes are mathematically impossible.

Beyond the disappointment, this kind of exchange through the mail — like chain letters that involve money — are actually illegal, considered a form of gambling since the gifts are things of value. The Tennessee Police Department posted a message on Facebook citing a federal statute that says, "Any letter, package, postal card, or circular concerning any lottery, gift enterprise, or similar scheme offering prizes dependent in whole or in part upon lot or chance" could lead to a conviction of up to two years in federal prison.

More: 32 holiday gifts for teachers they won't trash the minute your kid leaves

So, not to squash your holiday cheer, but you should pass when you see these kinds of promises on social media. Fortunately we're headed into the season where real gifts and greeting cards may arrive in your mailbox. If not, you can always gift yourself with a subscription service to keep your mailbox more interesting, like Birchbox, which delivers beauty samples to you once a month for $10, or Rocksbox, which delivers unlimited jewelry you can wear and return for $19 a month. Chain letters that send recipes, post cards and other such items with minor value are legal, so as long as you don't get your hopes up too high as to how many you'll receive, those are fine too.

There are also wine of the month clubs, chocolate of the month clubs and a host of other ways to get a little — but legitimate — surprise in your mailbox each month. If you're not into any of those, you could always write some old-fashioned letters and hope to get some in return.

More: Give the adventure enthusiast on your list this holiday gift basket

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