Category Archives: Educational

Secret Sister: An Illegal Pyramid Scheme

It’s baaaack! The “Secret Sister” holiday gift scam has reared its crooked head again, just in time for the holidays.

While the festive season brings lots of joy and cheer, it also brings out the grinches who are looking to steal not only your holiday bliss, but also your identity and peace of mind.

How it plays out:

What seems like a fun way to bring cheer to many within the social media-verse is actually an illegal pyramid scheme, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS).

Akin to the old-timey chain letters of days gone by, the Secret Sister gift exchange calls for participants to buy one gift of at least $10 value and send it to your “secret sis.” In exchange, they are promised to receive 6-36 gifts in return.

The catch is, participants need to provide not only their personal information, but provide information of members from their social network. Then, those people have to provide their friends’ information, and so on, and so on…

Once the chain is broken — which is usually the case, especially during the holidays when nobody has time to shop for and ship a present to a stranger — the original participant is out $10 and will probably never get one gift, let alone 36!

Just like any other pyramid scheme, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Secret Sister counts on “the recruitment of individuals to keep the scam afloat. Once people stop participating in the gift exchange, the gift supply stops as well, and leaves hundreds of disappointed people without their promised gifts.”

The USPIS considers gift exchanges (newer scams feature exchanging bottles of wine) a form of gambling. Participants could be charged with mail fraud as well as face fines and jail time.

When the scam first appeared on Facebook in 2015, the USPIS posted, “Fraudulent pyramid schemes typically violate the Lottery Statute (Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302). They contain all three elements of a lottery: prize (expectation of monetary or other gain from participation in the pyramid); chance (the monetary return you may receive from your participation is entirely up to chance, that is, dependent on the efforts of those below you in the pyramid) and consideration (the price of your gift to join the pyramid).”

Protect yourself:

Delete it:  Even though it seems lovely to receive many gifts from all over the globe, it could cost you your identity and your freedom. Disregard any social media post, email or letter asking to be a Secret Sister.

Report it: Let the social media platform you’re using know about the circulating scheme by clicking on “report post.”

Protect it: Restoring your identity is no joke! Keep your private information to yourself.

Question it: Some of these fraudsters actually have the gall to claim these schemes are not only legal, but are endorsed by the U.S. government. Nothing could be further from the truth! Pyramid schemes are illegal and would never be promoted by any government agency.

Don’t get on the naughty list this holiday season. Steer clear of the Secret Sister or any other social media gift exchange, keep your money and your identity safe, and jingle all the way to a happy holiday!


Don’t forget to check the latest scam alerts. Contact the FTC for help if you’re targeted by a scammer.

Tracking Holiday Spending Keeps Seasonal Stress Down

The holiday season is upon us, and this year will be very … different. But we’ve got plenty of ways for you to enjoy the season while on a budget.

Nothing is more heartwarming than seeing your loved ones’ faces light up when they open that perfect gift you (err, Santa) gave them.

Tyler’s new bike, Olivia’s new tablet and that gift card to mom and dad’s favorite steak place all add up to wonderful holiday memories… until the credit card statements show up.

The holidays will look different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why most people will try even harder to make the season brighter for others. But, you don’t have to dip into Tyler and Olivia’s college savings to create a special time for everyone!

The most important thing to remember is to plan ahead: Have a set spending amount for gifts, wrap, entertaining, donations and travel.

Make a list and check it twice

Many are struggling financially this year, so it will be no surprise to those outside your family if your gift-recipient list is shorter this year. Once you trim your list, make those who got the cut a holiday treat or handmade token. It really IS the thought that counts.

Once you have your list complete, figure out a realistic amount to spend on each person. Jot down a couple of gift ideas in your price range for that person.

Try our Money Management tool in Online and Mobile Banking to keep your spending in check. You can use it to track regular monthly budgeting and spending, and it will help you to make sound decisions when it comes to holiday purchases.

Shopping

Due to the pandemic, holiday shopping is already in full swing. Most people want to avoid crowds, so they are already hitting the malls. Retailers are well aware of this trend, and are offering pre-Black Friday sales and discounts.

Spreading out your holiday shopping over several weeks also makes it easier on your budget. Always shop with a list and keep track of your spending. As you buy your gifts, subtract from your total budget.

In addition to shopping the sales and collecting coupon codes for online purchases, know when to buy. December is the best time to buy cars, appliances, winter clothing and electronics. Also, know how much items cost before a markdown to know if you’re really getting a deal.

It is expected that online shopping will increase by 35% this year because shoppers don’t feel comfortable being in stores. Some states still have restrictions limiting retail establishments’ capacity and store hours.

If you’re shopping online, order early and expect delays in shipping. Increased shopping during the holidays will affect already-strained delivery companies. To avoid shipping delays and higher shipping costs, shop at stores that offer “buy online, ship to store” service. This service is free at most retailers, some of which offer curbside pickup.

Get the best deals on cards, decorations and gift wrap during the days right before and after Christmas. Discounts of up to 75% off can shave a lot off your holiday budget for next year.

Entertaining

Still reeling from the pandemic, most folks will host smaller holiday gatherings this year, which will save tons on food, treats and adult beverages. Many people are still working from home, so work parties and gift exchanges also will be virtual or postponed, keeping cash in your wallet.

If you’re hosting guests, keep costs down by asking everyone to bring their favorite side or dessert and include festive recipe cards with the chef’s name.

For the adults, serve a warm mulled wine or holiday punch or make one festive signature cocktail.

Use DIY decor featuring natural items, like holly and pine cones. Gather the kids and go on a hike to find outdoor holiday decorations. Not only will it save you money, but it will also give you some stress-free outdoor time with your family.

Save more by partying without plastic. Disposable plates and dinnerware are not great for the environment or your budget.

Travel

If you must travel home for the holidays, don’t forget to figure in other incidentals beyond gasoline and the cost of a plane ticket.

If you’re traveling by car, gas prices have luckily seen a steady dip. Still, the GasBuddy app can help you find the best prices for gasoline wherever you are, and you can even pay from the app. Don’t forget to figure in tolls and any emergency costs that may come up.

If you’re flying, consider baggage fees, parking and shuttle costs and the expense of ground transportation once you arrive.

And don’t forget Fluffy! You’ll need to pay someone to take care of your furry friends. The Rover app can help you find pet care options near your home.

Charitable giving

The holidays are a time for goodwill toward all. But if your budget cannot accommodate a monetary donation, volunteer your time. If you are able to make a financial donation, be sure to check that the charity you are supporting is legitimate by consulting Charity Navigator.

Keep your holidays dollars in check, and you may have some holiday spirit left over even after the last elf is packed away and the January bills start rolling in.


We at USAgencies Credit Union wish you all a happy, healthy and stress-free holiday.

Beware of Debt-Collection Scams

Don’t be the next victim of a debt-collection scam! Here’s all you need to know about these scams:

How the scams play out

In a debt-collection scam, a caller claiming to represent a debt-collection agency demands immediate payment for an alleged outstanding debt. The caller insists on specific means of payment and may threaten to tell the victim’s friends about the unpaid debt. The alleged debt may be completely fabricated, or the scammer has hacked the victim’s accounts to learn of its existence. In either scenario, the caller does not represent the creditor and will pocket any “collected” money.

These scams can also take the form of abusive debt collection, in which a caller collects money for a legitimate debt, but does so using abusive and illegal practices.

How to spot a debt-collection scam

You might be looking at a scam if an alleged debt collector does any of the following:

  • Withholds information about the debt and the creditor
  • Threatens the debtor with jail time
  • Insists on specific means of payment
  • Asks to be provided with personal financial information

Know your rights

When outstanding debts go unpaid, a lender can legally sell the debt to a collection agency. The agency can then attempt to collect the debt through letters and phone calls.

According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) , debt collectors cannot:

  • Contact borrowers at unreasonable hours.
  • Call borrowers at their workplace if the borrower said they cannot accept phone calls at work.
  • Harass borrowers about a debt, including using threats of violence and calling the debtor multiple times each day.
  • Engage in unfair collection practices.
  • Lie about the money owed.
  • Falsely represent themselves.
  • Threaten the debtor with jail time.
  • Falsify the name of the agency they represent.

 Protect yourself

If you’re unsure of whether you are being targeted by a debt-collection scam, ask the caller for a callback number and to confirm information about the debt. The collector should know the amount owed and be able to tell you the name of the company behind the debt.

If you still believe you are being scammed, contact the creditor and ask if the debt collection has been outsourced to another company.
If you’ve been targeted

If you’ve been targeted by an illegitimate debt collector, report the scam at ftc.gov/complaint. If a falsified debt appears on your credit report, you will need to dispute the charge as well.

If a collection agency is employing abusive tactics or if you’d like them to stop calling you, it’s best to send them a letter asking them to cease all contact. Once the agency has received the letter, they can only reach out to you to confirm there will be no further contact, or to inform you of a specific action they are taking.


Don’t forget to check the latest scam alerts. Contact the FTC for help if you’re targeted by a scammer.

The Importance of Being Financially Fit

Are you ready to stretch those financial fitness muscles? We hope so, because it’s time to get financially fit!

Being financially fit means living a life of complete financial responsibility. The Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI), also known as the Financial Health Network, defines four basic components of financial health: Spend, Save, Borrow and Plan. These components reference everyday financial activities. As such, every choice you make in terms of these four activities either builds or detracts from your financial fitness. Like physical fitness, you can beef up those fitness muscles a little bit more each day.

Being financially fit is crucial for a well-balanced, stress-free life. Here’s why (and how):

Expand your financial knowledge

A financially fit person is constantly broadening their money knowledge. They read personal finance books and blogs, attend financial education seminars and are aware of the evolving state of the economy. This enables them to make monetary decisions from a position of knowledge and power, leaving much less up to chance or luck.

Stick to a budget

A financially fit person knows that tracking monthly expenses is key to financial health. They are careful to set aside money from their monthly income for all fixed and discretionary expenses and to stay within budget for each spending category.

Minimize debt

A financially fit person is committed to paying down debts and seeks to live debt-free. Constant budgeting, ongoing financial education and planning ahead enables them to make it through the month, and through unexpected expenses, without spiraling into debt.

Maximize savings 

A financially fit person prioritizes savings. In fact, savings is a fixed item on their monthly budget instead of something that only happens if there’s money left over. This allows them to think ahead and build a comfortable nest egg or emergency fund. In turn, having a robust safety net means sleeping better at night knowing there’s money available to cover unexpected expenses or a change in life circumstances.

Maintain complete awareness of the state of your finances

A financially fit person knows exactly how much money they owe, the accumulated value of their assets and the complete sum of their fixed and fluctuating expenses. This awareness takes the stress out of money management, allowing them to make better financial choices.

Maintain a healthy credit score

A financially fit person knows that an excellent credit history and score is a crucial component to long-term financial health. They are careful to pay all bills on time, hold onto their credit cards for a while and to keep their credit utilization low. This enables them to qualify for long-term loans with favorable interest rates, which saves them money for years to come.

Help your money go further

A financially fit person does not waste large sums of money on interest charges for purchases made using borrowed funds via credit cards or loans. They live within their means and only use these resources for purchases they can actually afford, or for large, long-term assets, like a car or a house. This means they have more funds at their disposal to help build their wealth through savings and investments.

Create concrete financial goals

A financially fit person has long-term and short-term financial goals. This enables them to keep their focus on the big picture when making everyday money choices, empowering them to actually realize their financial dreams.

Achieve financial independence

A financially fit person is independent. They don’t rely on loans from friends or family members to get by, and they don’t need to pay with plastic at the end of the month because they ran out of money. Their well-padded emergency fund means they don’t depend on their monthly income to put bread on the table, either. By sticking to a budget, prioritizing savings and maintaining an awareness of their finances, they are strong, secure and completely independent.

Being financially fit means living a life without battling anxiety about getting through the month or stressing about the future. You can achieve financial fitness by committing to making choices in each of the four components of financial health (spend, save, borrow, plan) that are forward-thinking and help to build your financial wellness.


Are you looking for more financial tips? What if you could get paid to learn about finance? Well, now you can. USAgencies Credit Union has partnered with Zogo, an app where users earn money while they learn about money. Download the free app using code “USACU”, and earn while you learn about finance!

Connect with us today at 503-275-0300 or email info@usacu.org to learn more.