WASHINGTON - U.S. officials say that Americans who are reporting receiving unsolicited packages containing seeds purportedly sent from China could be the victims of a fraudulent internet retail scheme known as a "brushing scam."
Residents of about a dozen U.S. states have reported receiving mysterious packages containing dozens of seeds that appeared to have been mailed from China. The seeds are of unknown origin, and state agencies are warning recipients not to plant them if they are invasive species.
"At this time, we don't have any evidence indicating this is something other than a 'brushing scam' where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales," the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote on its website, adding that the agency is investigating the packages from China.
In recent days, residents all over the country have been reporting on social media that they received mystery packages containing seeds that they did not order. With either white or yellow packaging, the packages appear to have been shipped via China's state-run postal agency and contain Chinese characters on the outside. At least 30 states are urging its residents to report these unsolicited packages of seeds, warning they could be harmful.
"Anyone receiving seeds that they did not order should not open the packets or plant the seeds," Michael Wallace, director of communications at Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told VOA.
"Residents should be cautious because planting seeds that are non-native to the United States could potentially be an invasive species that would be a detriment to the environment," warned Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain.
He told VOA the state is also concerned about the introduction of seed-borne pathogens into the environment.
David Miller, a soybean farmer from Iowa, said farmers like him are taking this seriously.
"Well, if you ordered them, it's one thing. If they came unsolicited, I think it's concerning. You don't know what these seeds are, and from whom, you don't know if they contain or carry seed diseases, insect and all sorts of things can come in," Miller told VOA.
Although investigators are still looking into the suspicious mailings, the USDA and Better Business Bureau said it appears to bear the hallmarks of an international "brushing scam."
According to the BBB, a brushing scam starts with a company sending a consumer an unsolicited order or merchandise. The company then uses the consumer's information and address to write a fake review for the company to boost its online reputation.
"A fake, positive review improves their products' ratings, which means more sales for them. The payoff is highly profitable from their perspective," the BBB wrote in a newsletter.
Most of the sellers involved are foreign third-party vendors on Amazon. According to Liz Johnson, an identity protection specialist and owner of Digital Bodyguard Co. LLC, brush scams are the new identity theft scam individuals should be on the lookout for.
"If a user disputes the package through Amazon or contacts the sender through Amazon it presents a deeper problem. This lets the criminal know that it is very likely you have an Amazon account. If a criminal suspects this, a simple online search of your email can reveal passwords in data breaches which can compromise your Amazon account; especially if these are connected to the phone number you use for Amazon's multi-factor authentication," Johnson said.
She added that the worst part about brushing scams is that the individual receiving the merchandise has no idea or way to verify that they have not been tampered with. Even more so, individuals receiving these packages have no way to stop the services.
BBB says the fact that a scammer was able to send items to a person indicates they have some of that person's Amazon account information, such as a name, address, and possibly a phone number or password.
According to the consumer protection agency, anyone who receives unsolicited packages should change their Amazon password and monitor their credit report and bank accounts.
Amazon did not respond to VOA's request for comment.
In a previous statement regarding brushing scams, the internet giant said they investigate every report of customers receiving unsolicited packages and ban all vendors and reviewers who abuse the reviews system.