A Scam Masquerading as Santa

by Prasad Krishna last modified Dec 26, 2015 01:23 AM
Christmas is here and social media is abuzz with celebrations of its spirit.

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Lurking in the dark though, is an online scam that has been turning expectations of those participating in it into heartache. Secret Santa, a gift exchange programme, has lured many people into its fold. The exchange programme invites people to join a chain of gift givers (and hopeful receivers) through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The promised deal is that every person in the chain stands to get 36 gifts against one that they make.

A person interested in being part of the chain, has to post their agreement on their wall, and invite six more participants. The scheme encourages the person to send a gift valued below Rs 600 to a person whose name and address is at the top of a long list of participants that is sent as a private message. Once they have made the gift, they remove the name of the person in first place, and replace it with the person in the second place. The new recruit then puts their name in the second place of the list.

Social media experts call it as nothing but a pyramid scheme scam. While this has gone viral in the city only recently, the UK and USA governments have already warned their citizens against falling prey to such scams and termed them illegal. While most victims of the scam are sending books as gifts to strangers, there are others who have been gifting cosmetics, chocolates or Christmas gift packs. Of course, most are doing it in the hope of getting back similar gifts.

Chaitanya KM, Kannada film director, who sent a book as a gift under the scheme, told Bangalore Mirror, "I sent one book and seven people have asked me for my address but I have not received anything in return. I haven't heard about this scam but I do not mind gifting a book anyways without getting anything in return." Some hope that Secret Santa will work as an eye opener for city social media users.

Sunil Abraham, executive director of Centre for Internet and Society, said, "This seems to be a rumour to which many are falling prey. This will work like net-user education, and people will get wiser after they are cheated. Some form of awareness needs to be done because at least two per cent of people will respond to this."

Facebook bars it
According to Facebook rules, multi-level marketing on the platform is prohibited. The Facebook agreement terms state that engaging in things like pyramid schemes is not allowed. Also posting personal details on Facebook makes one vulnerable to many more identity fraud that can follow.


Not only are pyramid schemes like this one mathematically impossible, they're also against Facebook's terms of use. The list of theoretical participants multiplies into millions of people in just a few steps of Secret Santa. The idea sounds feasible but it is not. Going from step one it starts with six people, who each invite six more, who all send gifts to the person in the number one spot before they're moved off the list. However, as it spreads, the number of people involved increases far more than would ever take part — if the 36 each invite six people then the total number of participants is 216 going on to 1,296 and so on. Only those who start the schemes or enter in the second round stand a chance of receiving something in return and even in that case it is just one gift not 36 as the post claims. Those who join later never ever reach the top of the list.