Authorities and police believe that packages sent to homes around the United States with mysterious seeds and Chinese writing might be linked to scam online reviews.
Officials in Utah and Virginia previously warned residents who received the packages not to plant the seeds, fearing they could be of an invasive species.
“We have done some researching and it does appear that these seeds are tied with an online scam called ‘brushing’,” the Whitehouse Police Department in Ohio wrote on Facebook of the strange seeds.
It added, “A brushing scam is an exploit by a vendor used to bolster product ratings and increase visibility online by shipping an inexpensive product to an unwitting receiver and then submitting positive reviews on the receiver’s behalf under the guise of a verified owner.” The department called on people who have received the seeds to contact them to dispose of them.
North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said Monday that the deliveries are probably linked to “an international Internet scam.”
How the scam works is that a seller trying to boost the ratings of their own products creates a fake email account to make an Amazon profile before buying the items with a gift card, shipping them to a random person’s address. The owner of the account then is listed as a “verified buyer” after the package is delivered to the address, allowing them to write a review so that it gets a higher number of positive ratings. It then pushes their products higher on Amazon, according to James Thomson, a former business consultant for Amazon, reported the Boston Globe in 2018.
The Globe reported that a Massachusetts couple in 2018 kept receiving mystery packages from Amazon, including USB-powered humidifiers and dog collars.
In addition, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, citing officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claimed the mystery packages of seeds being sent to unwitting recipients are a “brushing scam.”
“While we have no reason to suspect at this time that these seeds were sent with ill intention, we want to take every precaution to be sure an invasive or otherwise threatening plant species doesn’t take hold here,” it said on Monday, reiterating that people shouldn’t plant them and mail the items to the agency’s address.
If one planted the seeds, they should “[pull] up the plants” before “double bagging them and putting them in the trash. It’s not a good idea to compost them,” the agency said.
The incident made international headlines after Lori Culley, who lives in Tooele, told FOX13 in Salt Lake City that she received two small packages in her mailbox last week, adding that most of the writing was in Chinese. The package’s label, however, said there were earrings inside.
“I opened them up and they were seeds,” Culley said, adding she never ordered seeds. “Obviously they’re not jewelry.” She said that the seeds were sent to at least 40 people around Tooele.