BBB Alert: Mysterious seeds from China possibly a Brushing Scam

Pensacola, Fla. – People in Florida and around the country are receiving mysterious seed packets in the mail from China. While the shipping package may be mislabeled as jewelry or other merchandise, the contents are instead unlabeled seeds.

This is not the first time a company has sent out unsolicited products to random houses. BBB sees this type of scam periodically with different materials being sent through the mail.

In a scam known as “Brushing,” businesses will send their merchandise to your home in order to post a fake, positive review on their products. But why go through the trouble of mailing you merchandise instead of just posting the fake review?

Often, retailers require reviewers to have actually bought the product. You cannot review something if you have not bought it. So, these shady businesses have to make it look like their fake reviews come from legitimate people. Because big retailers like Amazon verify and track addresses and packages through a third party like USPS, scammers cannot send packages to bogus places.

Instead, scammers go online, find real addresses of real people, and create fake accounts. They then mail these unsuspecting people an actual product—or something completely unrelated to what they are selling. After the tracking system confirms delivery, these scammers can then leave a “verified” review in your name. Not only do they have one more stellar review, they have also falsely inflated their sales to look more successful than they are.

In any case, receiving one of these packages is bad news for you:

The fact that the items were sent to you as if you purchased them indicates scammers have some of your information and may have also created an account in your name. Certainly, they have your name and address, and possibly, your phone number and a password. Once the information is out there, it could be used for numerous crooked enterprises.

The fake online review angle is only one way they benefit. By using the brushing scam, they also are increasing their sales numbers. After all, they are not really purchasing the items since the payment goes right back to them. Increased sales numbers, even though padded with fake purchases, look good for the company, and help lead to more sales.

What should you do if you receive mysterious seeds from China?

  • Contact the Florida Department of Agriculture. Seeds can sometimes be invasive species, contain pests or pathogens, and their importation is usually highly regulated by the government. Do not plant them to see what grows or throw them away.
  • Notify the retailer. Look up the company who sent you the seeds. If you can find a listing on a 3rd party retailer, contact that company’s customer service, and report the brushing scam.
  • Check your information. The package may be a sign that your personal information has been compromised. Change your password. Keep a close eye on your credit report, bank accounts and credit card bills. By looking up your name and address using a search engine, you can in some cases see how public your information has become.

UPDATE: FDACS Asking Floridians to Report Suspicious Seed Packets from China

Tallahassee, Fla. – The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) is continuing to warn Floridians about unsolicited packages of seeds received through the mail. The seed packets, which may arrive unexpectedly in packages bearing Chinese characters, may bear the name China Post, and may be labeled as jewelry, have been reported in multiple states including Virginia, Kansas, Washington, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah, and others.

As of July 28, FDACS has received at least 631 reports from Florida residents reporting having received suspicious seed packages. The content of the seed packages remains unknown at this time, until testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) takes place.

UPDATE: Today, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the lead regulatory body on this matter, issued guidance. The USDA believes the seeds to be part of a “brushing” scam, where unsolicited items are sent in order to post false customer reviews and boost online sales. Upon receiving seed packages from recipients, the USDA will test the contents to determine if a risk is posed to agriculture or the environment.

The introduction of plant seeds into the United States is tightly regulated by the USDA. Seeds of unknown origin may constitute agricultural smuggling, may be invasive, may introduce pathogens, toxins, or plant and animal diseases, may pose a risk of foodborne illness, and may pose a threat to plant and animal health. FDACS is continuing to work closely to receive additional guidance from the USDA and APHIS, in consultation with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“Plant seeds from unknown sources may introduce dangerous pathogens, diseases, or invasive species into Florida, putting agriculture and our state’s plant, animal, and human health at risk,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. “Anyone receiving these suspicious seed packets should not plant them, but should report it to our department immediately, so that our inspectors can safely collect them for analysis.”

UPDATED: What To Do: Anyone receiving unsolicited seed packages from other countries should follow these directions:

  • Do not open the seed packet and avoid opening outer packaging or mailing materials, if possible
  • Place the seed packet AND mailing materials into a sealable plastic bag – this is important to determining the origin of the seeds
  • Do not plant the seeds or discard them in trash that will be landfilled
  • Report the seed package to the FDACS Division of Plant Industry at 1-888-397-1517 or DPIhelpline@FDACS.gov
  • After reporting the seed package, an Inspector from the FDACS Division of Plant Industry will contact seed recipients to schedule a safe, contactless collection of the seeds, packaging, and mailing materials

When reporting the seed package to FDACS and USDA/APHIS, please be prepared to provide one’s name, physical address, phone number, and email address for contact and seed collection purposes.