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Why ‘book exchange’ posts spreading on Facebook and Instagram might not be all they seem

·3-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

An evergreen post about starting a “book exchange” is circulating on Instagram and Facebook.

The post generally starts with some variation on a message that reads: “I’m looking for people to participate in a huge book exchange”. It goes on to tell people that they will be asked only to buy one book, but they might receive as many as 36 in return.

The post asks users to reply to the message with the word “in”. If they do, they will receive instructions for how to take part, which include asking people to re-post that same image, send a book to a specific address, and then do the same thing for other people.

It seems designed to lure in readers who want to share their love of writing and books with other people. But it is, sadly, a scam – although one you might not lose out from.

The promise of receiving 36 books in return is somewhat similar to the even more prevalent “secret sister” scam. That makes the same promises: you can sign up to a gift exchange, through which you will send out one present and receive 36 books in return.

Both seem like they are too good to be true, with the offer of “favourite books from strangers around the world” feeling like a dream prospect to avid readers. And it is, sadly, as fictional as it might feel: the maths simply do not add up.

It is just not possible for everyone to receive more books than they send, since they have to come from somewhere. Some people will do, but that is because the exchange is structured like a pyramid scheme: the only way not to be scammed is to recruit other people, who will then be stuck in the same bind.

As with the Secret Sister scam – and any other pyramid scheme – it very quickly becomes the case that there are not enough people in the world to fulfil all the books. In just a few rounds, millions of people are needed.

By definition, some people will lose out. And you are almost certainly not going to get what’s promised.

But while the book exchange has been labelled a scam, that is perhaps not quite fair. While the post is misleading and likely to end in disappointment, it is not as dangerous as other scams that circulate on the internet.

The biggest danger is that you will send off a book and receive none in return. This is very possible because it requires the post to be shared fairly widely: the nature of it means that you don’t receive your books from your own followers, but from the people who your followers sign up.

If that doesn’t happen, you will be left having sent your favourite book to somebody else and receiving nothing in return. And even if it does, you should be aware that people who might be further down your chain are, at some point, going to end up disappointed.

The other possible danger is that you might be asked to share your address, potentially with strangers. This should of course be evaluated in context: it comes with all the same risks as doing that at any other time, which is to say that it could be harmful in the wrong hands, but could be entirely safe.

As such, if you take part with the expectation of receiving a book in return, you will probably be disappointed. If you take part with the expectation of receiving 36 books in return, then you almost certainly will be disappointed.

But if you want to take part simply to support your local bookshop, or to share your favourite book in the hope that somebody will read it, then you might enjoy taking part.

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