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Saturday, February 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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BBB Tip of the Week: Beware the modern-day chain letter

Kirstin Davis,BBB

If you buy a ten-dollar gift card, mail it out and receive thirty-six in return you would consider that a good deal, right? You may remember the good old days when you received a letter in the mail with a one-dollar bill and asking that you send that and five other one-dollar bills on to six friends, and in return you will receive thirty-six dollars. Did you ever do it? Did it work?

The chain letter concept has been repurposing itself since being traced back to 1888 and has been more prolific than ever in the digital age.

Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest cautions against participating in chain letters such as these.

It doesn’t work. Mathematics tell us that this concept is impossible to achieve with the theory of exponential growth. Assume an original letter is sent to six people and every recipient participates according to the instructions by sending it on to six independent recipients who are not already being sent the same letter. By the thirteenth mailing it would outnumber the world population.

It is illegal. If a message requests money or other items of value and promises a substantial return to the participants it is against the law. The United States Postal Service says chain letters are a form of gambling, and sending them through the mail (or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money or gifts to participate) violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute.

Regardless of what technology is used to advance the scheme, if the mail is used at any step along the way, it is still illegal. There are some exemptions to the law. For instance, material for a lottery conducted by a U.S. state is permittable to be mailed in that state only.

The U.S. Postal Service also states that no exemption has been enacted which would make it lawful for a foreign lottery enterprise to use the U.S. Mail, or cause it to be used, to operate, promote, or enter one of its lotteries. First-time offenders convicted of knowingly violating the postal anti-lottery statute would face penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and two years in prison.

You are increasing your risk of identity theft. Social media adds an additional twist with technology that makes participants more vulnerable to identity theft or scams. If your “friends of friends” are sharing information, all the sudden your mailing address could be attached to your personal social media account with photos, places of work, locations and other personal information. It also increases your chances of attacks on your computer and digital devices.

Social media can make this concept seem more personal because it is being shared by a friend. Remember the old saying, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Anyone who feels they’ve been a victim of ID theft or a scam should report it to local law enforcement and BBB Scam Tracker.

For more consumer protection tips and information on BBB investigations, visit

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