Did You Receive Mysterious Seeds From China in the Mail? You May Be a Victim of a 'Brushing' Scam

Documents from federal and state departments of agriculture reveal that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people planted mysterious seeds believed to have been shipped from China. While few satisfactory explanations for the unsolicited seed packment shipments have emerged, officials raised the possibility that the seeds are part of what's known as a "brushing" campaign.

Last week, Motherboard's Jason Koebler revealed that tens of thousands of Americans received mailings of the mystery seeds in July, with documents obtained from states like North Carolina recording hundreds of reports. Documents from state agencies record a range from responses, with some people eating the mystery seeds, or planting them in their gardens, while others called 911.

Plant labs in Utah and New Mexico identified a variety of shipped seeds, including amaranth, rose, mint, sweet potato, clovers, onion, cucumber, alfalfa, corn, hollyhock, spearmint and daisy seeds.

Non-mystery seeds used in the creation of a vegetable garden during Plant a Seed Day in Hawthorne, California on March 13, 2019. DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

"We have not found anything alarming," Osama El-Lissy of the USDA's Animal and Plant Protection Program said in a broadcast provided by the department, describing some of the seeds as "noxious weeds."

"Overall, we haven't seen anything of major concern, but we have found a few pests that are considered quarantine significant under our regulations," a USDA spokesperson told Newsweek in response to emailed questions. "They include one immature, non-stinging wasp from the genus Megastigmus, two Federal noxious weeds (water spinach and dodder), and a larval seed beetle from the Chrysomelidae family."

The identification of many of the seeds discounts early speculation that the seeds could be part of an intentional campaign to spread invasive species. But the USDA continues to collect samples, and urges people to report seeds to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The USDA is also working with Chinese organizations to determine the origin or origins of the mysterious seed shipments.

In the meantime, the USDA has been left with only one potential explanation for the unsolicited shipments.

"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 agency said.

In a brushing scam, small-value items are shipped to addresses from third-party sellers, who can then use the shipment to claim your identity as a "verified buyer" and write a glowing review. Using fake accounts with real addresses, a brushing scam allows an unscrupulous retailer to create fake reviews that are lent extra legitimacy by the verified shipment. Since many online retailers, including Amazon, prioritize reviews from people who can be shown to have actually purchased the product—algorithmically promoting the buyer's perspective—shipping small items like seeds can help products appear higher in search results and otherwise benefit the seller.

According to APHIS, the seed shipments were split between two general trends, with some attributable to people who ordered seeds online but were unaware they would be shipped from a foreign country (and thus not in compliance with import requirements), and people who received seeds they never ordered.

"We believe these latter packages are part of a brushing scam," the USDA spokesperson confirmed. "Before an ecommerce site will consider an order valid, a shipment must be initiated to complete the transaction. Sellers carrying out brushing scams will often ship inexpensive items to complete these transactions. The more transactions a seller completes, the higher their rating and the more likely that their items will appear at the top of search results on an ecommerce site."

An Amazon spokesperson told Newsweek that seed shipments provided through Amazon were attributable to genuine orders delayed from COVID-19, rather than brushing scams.

"Third party sellers are prohibited from sending unsolicited packages to customers and we take action on those who violate our policies, including withholding payments, suspending or removing selling privileges, or working with law enforcement."

But the dangers of brushing scams are real. "The payoff is highly profitable from their perspective," the Better Business Bureau warns in its brushing scam explainer. "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 aren't 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."

Those who have received unsolicited shipments, of seeds or other products, should consider the possibility that their personal information has been partially compromised. The BBB recommends notifying the retailer and changing account passwords if you suspect that your address and/or name was used as part of a brushing scam.

With investigations into the unsolicted seeds ongoing, it's unclear whether and how many of the unsolicited seed packets can be explained by brushing scams. Just don't eat the mystery seeds.