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Those mystery seeds from China? Might be part of a Amazon review scam

Agriculture officials are asking people to not plant these seeds, as they could wreak havoc on the environment. Video Elephant

Why are seeds from China mysteriously showing up in thousands of people’s mailboxes across the country? Is this some kind of plot?

While the practice is under investigation, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said in a statement that they have no reason to believe it is anything other than a “brushing scam,” a ploy to boost online sales by salting retail web sites with glowing product reviews.

At least 300 people in Indiana have received the packets unsolicited, and agriculture officials have warned people not to plant the seeds.

Here’s what you need to know about this scam, the seeds and what to do:

How does a brushing scam work?

In one variation of a brushing scam, third-party sellers on retail sites like Amazon create fake accounts, but use real addresses. The sellers, who are often foreign, will then send products to consumers in other countries. The sellers can then use those accounts to post glowing reviews of the products, which helps improve their rankings so that their items appear at the top of search results on e-commerce sites.

The items that people receive — usually a very cheap or worthless version of the product — are not the actual product the seller is leaving a review for.

Sometimes these sellers will also get a consumer’s name and address and send these items to them as a gift. Amazon’s policy allows the individuals who purchase the gift to leave the review, so they will post positive reviews that way, as well. In addition to the reviews, the company’s may also be after increased sales volumes, which can also improve their products’ rankings on the sites.

What are signs of it?

When it comes to the unsolicited packages with seeds, many of the shipments are postmarked from China with Chinese lettering on the label. They are coming in white or yellow packaging, and many of the labels have been marked “untracked.”

Some of the shipments have also been listing the contents as jewelry such as “stud earrings” or a “bracelet,” only to find that the package contains the seeds.

The Agriculture Department is looking into the origins of mysterious packages of seeds with Chinese mailing addresses delivered to recipients who say they never ordered them. (Photo: Kansas Department of Agriculture Facebook/TNS)

Is my information compromised?

That is a good question, and unfortunately there is not a clear answer. The third-party seller may have received your address from a different and previous purchase with them or through a quick and relatively easy internet search.

That said, it could also indicate a breach in privacy or data security. Those who believe they are a victim of a brushing scam are encouraged to change their password for the e-commerce sites they use and also to monitor their credit cards for any unusual activity or unauthorized transactions.

The recipients of the package should also notify the retailer, such as Amazon. People are encouraged to find the contact information from their site directly and not from an email about the shipment, as that could be part of the scam.

Does brushing actually work?

For the most part, it does. In 2015, a team of researchers from the College of William and Mary in Virginia tracked the sales of more than 4,000 sellers using brushing methods on Taobao, a Chinese online shopping website owned by Alibaba.

They discovered that these sellers were able to raise their rankings up to 10 times faster than they could via legitimate means. The researchers found it was also a relatively low-risk tactic, as just 2% of the accounts they monitored — or less than 100 — were penalized.

Can these types of scams be stopped?

That’s also unclear. E-commerce sites have been struggling with these scams for the last few years, and many sites recognize the problem and claim to be combating it.

Brushing and fake reviews are against Amazon’s policies, according to the Better Business Bureau, and they will investigate and take action on the bad actor. Brushing is also illegal in China.

However, a loophole makes enforcement difficult: These packages are often sent across international borders. If the seller is on the other side of an international line from the buyer, then no rules, regulations, or laws apply, according to a Forbes article — IP, consumer safety, and postal laws become moot.

What is China’s response?

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, defended the country’s postal service, saying it follows all restrictions on seed deliveries, according to Reuters. The U.S. is a seed exporter to Asia but not a seed importer. Records on the packages appear to have been falsified, according to checks by China’s postal service, Wenbin said at a news briefing.

U.S.-China relations are already at a low point due to a number of factors, including trade tensions, the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s controversial national security law in Hong Kong.

Are the seeds harmful?

That is currently unknown. Agriculture officials across the country are working to collect the seeds and then analyze to identify them. There are some concerns that they could be a noxious plant, and invasive species or carry a dangerous disease.

The seeds are of all different kinds, varying in shape, size and color. Some initial tests out of Washington state have found some of the seeds are amaranth, a weed family that is on the noxious list in Indiana and other states. This means they can be harmful to crops, ecosystems and possibly even humans or livestock.

A packet of seeds postmarked from China arrived at a Lafayette resident’s home this week, as agricultural experts put out warnings not to plant the seeds that mysteriously started arriving in U.S. mailboxes this month. (Photo: Photo provided)

What should I do if I get a seed package?

Recipients of these packages are being advised not to plant them nor throw them out. You should contact the USDA or department of agriculture for your state. In Indiana, those who receive the seeds should do the following:

  • Place all contents in a zip-top bag, then place the bag in an envelope or small box and mail it to:
    • USDA APHIS PPQ
    • State Plant Health Director
    • Nick Johnson
    • 3059 N. Morton St. Franklin, IN 46131 ·
  • If you are unable to mail the items, do not dispose of them. Keep the seeds, packaging and mailing label and contact the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Entomology & Plant Pathology at 866-663-9684 or [email protected]
  • Anyone who has already planted seeds should not dispose of the plants or soil. Contact the Indiana DNR Division of Entomology & Plant Pathology at the phone number and email address above.
  • Never plant seeds of unknown origin.

Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.

IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

As mystery seeds end up in mailboxes across the country, officials believe that a "brushing scam" is behind the unsolicited shipments. What to know.

Inside the deeply weird fake seed scams that are all over Amazon

Blue strawberries: They don’t exist!

It’s Cheat Week at Mashable. Join us as we take a look at how liars, scammers, grifters, and everyday people take advantage of life’s little loopholes in order to get ahead.

Amazon has a well-documented fake item problem, from counterfeit versions of AirPods, books, and designer clothes to items that simply do not exist at all. Unfortunately, a packet of “blue strawberry seeds” — yes, strawberries that are blue — is one of the latter.

Many third-party sellers, whose products aren’t fulfilled by Amazon directly, are perfectly legit. Since this is the internet, though, the landscape is also rife with scams. One particularly odd corner of this fake item wonderland is the bizarre world of fake seeds — which plagues not only Amazon, but also eBay, Etsy, and online gardening marketplaces like JackSeeds.

To get an idea of what the fake seed racket looks like, enlist the algorithm. If you conduct enough searches related to “plant seeds,” you’ll start to see some weird products alongside your standard packet offerings. Blue strawberries? Rainbow roses? Peppers genetically engineered to look like dicks? These are not real plants, and yet there they are, often for under $2 per packet.

Two classics: The dick strawberry and the blue strawberry.

Generally, these listings have a few things in common. They have keyword-heavy, often confusing names (“50 Organic Strawberry Plant Pineapple-Strawberry Pineberry”), feature poorly Photoshopped images of fruit or flowers (no seed packets in sight), and boast cheerful, often roughly translated descriptions. “Produces large juicy fruit with sweet wild strawberry aroma,” reads the description for what is clearly supposed to be a penis-shaped strawberry. “Ideal for snacking on children’s gardens, balconies, and terraces.” If you place an order, the seeds will often ship from China, according to reviews.

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that these plants will come to fruition — not the kiwi-strawberry hybrids or the blue grapes or the pink succulents or the purple watermelons or the ginseng hanging from a tree. (Ginseng is a root.) If the seeds do grow, they’ll likely be weeds. A few reviewers on the dick-pepper listing said that their seeds did grow a few tiny peppers, but not anything that resembled a penis.

The online gardening community has done its best to warn consumers about the dangers of buying risky seeds on e-commerce sites. Organic gardener Luke Marion, who runs the gardening YouTube channel MIGardener, posted a video on the subject in August 2017, after receiving dozens of inquiries from people who had bought novelty seeds from Amazon and eBay but couldn’t get them to grow.

“I have to be the one to tell [gardeners], ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what they’re selling, but I would never buy those, and I wouldn’t trust them with . a penny of my money,'” he says in the clip. “I don’t know what you’re going to get when you buy those seeds, but I can guarantee you it’s not what they’re advertising. If you’re getting free shipping from China and you’re spending $1.78 . could you possibly be getting anything of quality?”

Marion also shows viewers a packet of “blue strawberry” seeds he ordered from eBay, which arrived in an ePacket — a shipping method for small packages originating in China and Hong Kong — containing a small plastic baggie of pellets (“These are not strawberry seeds; I am not an idiot,” Marion says) and nothing else. Marion doesn’t put the seeds anywhere near his garden; in fact, he throws the baggie away and washes his hands.

In an email to Mashable, Marion explained the potential dangers of planting seeds of unknown origin, which can include inviting invasive species, pests, and residual chemicals into your garden. “If the seeds were grown using herbicides, [the herbicides] can last in soil for up to three years,” he said.

eBay’s plants and seeds policy links to USDA requirements for “small lots of seed,” which states that small shipments of seeds may be imported into the United States as long as they aren’t a prohibited species, are authorized by a written permit, and meet specific packaging and shipping requirements. The least of these is where the eBay seed seller Marion encountered were most clearly non-compliant: His unmarked ePacket did not contain a single one of the following requirements:

A typed or legibly printed seed list/invoice accompanies each shipment with the name of the collector/shipper, the botanical names (at least to genus, preferably to species level) listed alphabetically, as well as the country of origin, and country shipped from, for each taxon. Each seed packet is clearly labeled with the name of the collector/shipper, the country of origin, and the scientific name at least to the genus, and preferably to the species, level. The invoice/seed list may provide a code for each lot, which may be used on the seed packets in lieu of the full list of required information. In this case, each packet must at least include the appropriate code, which is referenced to the entry for that packet on the seed list/invoice.

Unsurprisingly, eBay’s policy also states that “buyers are responsible for making sure they’re following U.S. import requirements” when purchasing seeds, theoretically to absolve the company of any responsibility should someone unwittingly plant the next kudzu when they’re trying in vain to grow the Piranha Plant from Super Mario.

Some incredible images of “rainbow tomatoes.”

Amazon, for its part, specifies that the seller is responsible for ensuring seed shipments are compliant with USDA regulations. However, it also requires that each shipment contains “the name of the state, country, or territory where the contents were grown” as well as “a statement of the contents.” A quick look at a few reviews reveals that scam sellers rarely even attempt to follow these rules. In a one-star review of “blue strawberry seeds” titled “seeds in a plastic bag,” a user named Lester said that, like Marion, they received their order in an ePacket with no information inside — just a baggie of seeds. “No way to know what I had!!” they wrote.

‘These are not strawberry seeds. I am not an idiot.’

And yet the listings stay up. There are dozens of fake seed sellers on Amazon alone, and (unhelpfully) they’re nearly impossible to trace. One prominent seller, Topark Seeds, lists seeds for outlandish plants like a grape-blueberry hybrid and teal bananas. The seller account is managed by a company called “Renzen,” which also runs several accounts selling bikes, clothing, and swimwear. (There is only one item — a $449 electric bicycle — listed on the Renzen Bikes page.) Despite the bounty of listings, Renzen seems to be a fairly new enterprise: Every single one of its reviews was written within the last 30 days. It’s possible that it’s a new version of a seller account that was previously shut down, but it could also be a fresh scammer entirely. Such is the constant ebb and flow of the seed scam universe. (Neither Amazon nor eBay responded to requests for comment.)

Another storefront, SeedsBest1, operates 51 seller accounts dedicated to fake seeds. (Some of their strangest offerings include rainbow bonsai trees and roses that are supposed to ooze blood.) The reviews page is a wild ride, with several users reporting that when they submitted questions to the seller, they received messages that were simply a random assortment of words. Others never received a package at all. And, of course, lots of people found that their seeds weren’t real. Some of these reviews are genuinely sad, written by earnest, overly trusting folks lacking in internet literacy. (A lot of reviewers appear to be older.) Other reviews are just angry.

“Not one seed grew,” wrote one user. “It’s not hard to grow onions at all.”

Still, reviews for SeedsBest1 remain, shockingly, at 65 percent positive. This is also the case for similar storefronts. It may explain why people keep buying this stuff, and definitely explains why a seed scam is a particularly lucrative enterprise. The majority of the five-star reviews — clearly written as soon as the seeds arrived — say something along the lines of “Got the package!” or “Seems great!” (These reviews are sometimes even “Verified Purchases,” amplifying the appearance of legitimacy.) Hardly anyone mentions the seeds’ viability unless their review is negative. And Amazon, of course, is notorious for fake reviews anyway.

Truly weird shit.

There’s also fairly rampant trolling in the reviews. Several five-star scores, for instance, are clearly jokes. One user with the username “Big Chungus” appeared in multiple comment sections asking if the seeds required lithium batteries.

The websites’ return policies also play into the scammers’ hands. Both eBay and Amazon only allow 30 days to initiate a return after an item has been delivered. (In eBay’s “Money Back Guarantee” policy, it’s specified that a buyer has 30 days to initiate a return if the item did not arrive as described.) But it’s likely that many buyers wouldn’t initiate a return within the 30-day window. Those who’ve been truly hoodwinked by a seed scam — that is, they’ve planted their fake seeds with full confidence that they’ll grow — may not understand their error until after 30 days have passed. One Amazon description for “rainbow rose seeds” says, conveniently, that it “generally” takes more than 40 days for the seeds to germinate.

So how can you vet a seed seller? First, it’s a good idea to buy seeds in person if you can. But if you must order from the internet, consider using a retailer you already trust rather than a Wild West marketplace like Amazon. Multiple gardening shops the online shop Johnny’s Seeds as well as the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, which works to share heirloom seeds with gardeners across the country.

Pay attention to pricing, too. As Marion points out in his video, it’s unlikely that you’ll grow anything viable from a mysterious seed packet that costs $1.23 and ships from China for free. On Johnny’s Seeds, a packet of 50 dahlia seeds costs $4.35, which isn’t enormously different from the scammers’ prices, but high enough that it doesn’t seem too good to be true. Yes, you have to pay shipping. And no, the shop does not offer dick strawberries.

On Amazon, eBay, and other marketplace websites, fake seeds are everywhere.