The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘secret sister’ hoax shows how hard it is to kill chain letters for good

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
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Chain letters are often illegal, break their promises, and are super annoying. Also, they are immortal. At least, that’s the only way we can think to explain the persistence of the appealing but mathematically impossible “secret sister” hoax, which started popping up on Facebook last month and shows no signs of stopping, despite more than a century of attempts to debunk letters and e-mails like it.

The “secret sister” scheme promises a bounty of gifts worth hundreds of dollars for anyone who passes along the Facebook post (or e-mail) as instructed: take the list of names you get, send a gift worth $10 to the person at the top. Remove their name from the top of the list, add yours to the bottom, and send to six of your friends with the same instructions. The idea is, eventually, your name will be at the top, and a bunch of strangers will give you free stuff.

[What was fake on the Internet this week: amazing cows, the KKK and a ‘Secret Sister’ gift exchange]

In other words, it’s a chain letter, and a pyramid scheme. Both have been around for a long time, and as long as they’ve circulated, there have been mathematical models to debunk them.

There are a couple of reasons why, as appealing as they sound, these schemes don’t really work. First, not everyone who gets a letter participates, meaning that no matter how much you like the six people you mail that secret sister list to with your name on it, chances are some will end up in the trash. And how do we know that? Because if everyone who got one of these things participated, an unimaginable number of people would be sending letters and gifts through the mail in just weeks.

Based on models looking at past iterations of those schemes, we can get a look at how the secret sister might play out.

There seem to be a few variations on how these exchanges are precisely worded, but assuming that the list you’re on is six people long, and the instructions require that participants add their names to the bottom of the list, and mail out their part within a week, it would take six weeks — and 46,656 participants — before your name moves up to the top into the gift-receiving spot. That’s a lot of people to rely on for an unbroken chain, and it gets worse. In 13 weeks, if everyone participated, the number of people involved would be more than there are on Earth. It’s a pyramid scheme, and although sometimes they work as promised for those who create them or are involved very early on, pyramid schemes quickly require an impossible number of participants in order to avoid collapse.

Also, as Snopes noted in their debunking of this particular chain, the secret sister chain is likely illegal. Here’s what the U.S. Postal Service says about the practice:

There’s at least one problem with chain letters. They’re illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants. Chain letters are a form of gambling, and sending them through the mail (or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate) violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute. (Chain letters that ask for items of minor value, like picture postcards or recipes, may be mailed, since such items are not things of value within the meaning of the law.)

Chain letters like these — promising luck, financial returns, or simply the perpetuation of a charitable spirit — have been around for a long, long time, as a cursory glimpse at Our Nation’s Newspaper Archives makes clear. In a 1917 edition of the Evening Current in Carlsbad, N.M., an announcement cautioned that “No Chain-Letter Project has Red Cross Approval.”

And a column that ran widely in 1922 bemoaned the “Chain Letter Epidemic,” desperately urging Americans to refuse to cooperate in a “good luck” chain. That column noted that even if the good luck chain was true and passed along honestly, then every American in the country would soon have extraordinary “good luck,” rendering the entire idea meaningless.

Another chain in 1916 asked recipients to come to the aid of a disabled man in  Portland — except it turned out that the man’s family had nothing to do with it, and certainly didn’t benefit from the letter at all.

Daniel W. VanArsdale has compiled a pretty comprehensive online history of chain letters. He traces the origin of money chain letters — like the secret sister scheme — all the way back to 1935, when a “send a dime” scheme swept through the western United States in the middle of the Great Depression. And even though the math didn’t add up then, as it doesn’t now, the letters became something of a short-lived craze.

Why the persistence? Well, it could be that these schemes feel like so little of an investment — just a $10 gift! — that those who think about participating don’t feel too swindled when it doesn’t work. Or maybe, as some recent research has suggested, its because debunkings like these just don’t tend to work. Oh well.

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