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Feds Uncover Secret Santa Ring

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Feds Uncover Secret Santa Ring

BLOOMINGTON, IN—The FBI arrested 34 people and seized $157 in small, tasteful presents Monday in what is believed to be the largest bust of a Secret Santa ring in U.S. history.

An FBI official holds one of the seized gifts.

The ring's base of operations, FBI director Louis Freeh said, was Creative Concepts, a Bloomington-area marketing firm. According to Freeh, all of the ring's participants were employees of Creative Concepts, mostly working in the secretarial pool and mail room, with a few coming from the client-services and accounting departments.

"It took nearly two years to secure sufficient hard evidence and eyewitness testimony, but we feel we have a solid case against them," said Freeh following the raid. "We believe that this Secret Santa ring had been operating at Creative Concepts for upwards of 15 years, and that thousands of gifts, from Dilbert coffee mugs to giant Hershey kisses, had been exchanged during that period of time. We are hopeful that the reign of Yuletide graft and corruption that has infested this company for so long has finally come to an end."

Among the items seized in the raid were three Sheaffer ballpoint pens, a bag of Jelly Belly jelly beans, two poinsettia plants, an Indianapolis Colts Christmas-tree ornament, a box of Ferrero Rocher bon bons, a Mannheim Steamroller CD, a 4"x6" silver picture frame, a Mooch The Monkey Beanie Baby, a pair of mittens, a Dorf On Golf video and several items believed to have originated from a mall-based Successories store.

Despite the success of Monday's raid, much about Secret Santa operations remains unknown. It is generally accepted by criminologists that Secret Santaism is a seasonal practice taking place exclusively around Christmastime, and involves the exchange of gifts, usually costing no more than $10 each.

According to Lester Long, a freelance criminal profiler and analyst, cracking a Secret Santa ring is difficult, because "the key to Secret Santaism is anonymity."

"The ring members commence their operations by writing their names on small scraps of paper, then surreptitiously placing the scraps in a hat or a small bucket or tin," Long said. "Then, each member quietly draws a single name and does not divulge who this person is to anyone. Nor does this member know who drew out his or her own name. Everyone is sworn to total silence and secrecy. This means participants are able to cover their tracks and protect each other's identity."

Added Long: "That's why it's so hard to run surveillance on suspected Secret Santa ring members when they go shopping—for all we know, they could be buying gifts for family members or friends. So possible civil-rights violations come into play. It's ingenious, really."

The Creative Concepts sales office that served as headquarters for the Secret Santa ring.

Sorely lacking in circumstantial evidence, law-enforcement officials have come to depend on information from informants and infiltrators planted in suspected Secret Santa rings. Much of what is known about these schemes comes from now-retired FBI agent Clayton "Hap" Roemer, who, posing as a claims adjustor, infiltrated a Secret Santa ring at a Freehold, NJ, insurance firm in the late 1960s.

Roemer detailed his experiences in his 1982 book Santa's Secrets: My Harrowing Undercover Life In The Center Of An Office Yuletide Racket.

"At times, work came to a virtual standstill as people chatted about the items they hoped to get on 'Secret Santa Day,' which normally coincided with the regular, perfectly legal office Christmas party," Roemer wrote. "A pair of white gloves for church? A Harold Robbins novel? Anything was possible for a Secret Santa, provided it was under the agreed monetary limit."

Roemer's work resulted in the arrest of 22 people and the eventual dismantling of the Freehold office racket. But despite this and subsequent decades of similar efforts, Secret Santaism still thrives to this day.

"Today's Secret Santa participants are far more savvy than those of Agent Roemer's time," Long said. "For example, they've learned not to post gift wish lists on the break-room board—that's an instant give away that Secret Santa activities are present. They also avoid using intra-office e-mail, which can be read by managerial higher-ups, and they assiduously destroy any evidence of a Secret Santa party, such as gift wrap, Dixie Cups and leftover poundcake."

Crime historians believe Secret Santa rings got their start among the office employees of a storage-and-transfer business in New York's Lower East Side in the late 1950s. From there, it slowly spread, finding its way into businesses throughout New England and the upper Midwest. By the mid-1970s, it had made its way to the burgeoning Sun Belt and the West Coast.

The accused members of the Creative Concepts Secret Santa ring are scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate on Jan. 15. They are charged with first-degree racketeering and improper expectation of gifts from professional colleagues.

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