By now you have probably heard of people getting packets of mystery seeds sent to their homes, apparently from China. And you may have heard the term “brushing” applied to this scheme. But what is brushing, and how should you respond?
Brushing is a scam used by online sellers to boost their product ratings at online marketplaces, such as Amazon, that allow third-party sales. Sellers will order their own products through these channels and send…something…to random recipients, then use the now “verified” purchase (since a shipping label was created and the shipment was completed) to post five-star reviews of their own product on the unwitting recipient’s behalf. The sales also help artificially inflate the product’s ranking on the site through which it was “sold.”
What gets shipped to the random recipients is generally not the product whose ranking and reviews are being inflated. It will be an inferior knockoff, an empty box, or in the case of this latest version, a packet of mystery seeds, labelled as jewelry on the outside of the mailer.
What should you do if you get a packet of seeds you didn’t order?
First, do not plant them. They could be an invasive species capable of destroying crops if they spread, such as amaranth, which has already been identified in some cases. By that same token, don’t throw them in the trash, since they could take root at the landfill and spread from there. (Also, don’t eat ‘em, smoke ‘em, or stick ‘em in your ear. I know that should be obvious, but people can be…surprising.)
Do not open the packet. If you live in Indiana, mail them along with the envelope and any packaging to:
USDA APHIS PPQ
State Plant Health Director
3059 N. Morton St.
Franklin, IN 46131
(Outside of Indiana, you will need to find out where to send the seeds.)
If you are concerned about identity theft or data breaches, change your password with any online retailers you do business with, and keep an eye on your credit reports and bills. The addresses used in this scheme are mostly obtained by the sellers buying a mailing list, but it never hurts to use a little extra caution.