Random individuals (mostly in the US) have been receiving some odd packages to their home address.  The unsolicited packages seem to originate from China, and they contain contained seeds. 

They weren't accompanied by any kind of explanation (at least not in English), so as Sherlock Holmes would say, the game was afoot.

Given the tensions between the US and China of late, initially there were fears that the seeds were part of an insidious (or just plain bizarre) act of biological or agricultural warfare or terrorism.

Stop sowing seeds of doubt

The US Department of Agriculture announced that the parcels might contain an invasive weed or a plant disease, so officials told recipients to send the packets, unopened, to federal offices in their state. They warned people not to plant the seeds over fears that, as a minimum, some may be invasive species and could destroy native plants and insects.

When the seeds were inspected, more than a dozen plant species have been found in the seed packets, including roses, hibiscus, mustard, cabbage, morning glory and some herbs, like mint, sage, rosemary, lavender.

More recently, a range of other random unsolicited parcels have been arriving, including cheap sunglasses, whistles, and even "used socks".

Rather than being part of an attempt to introduce invasive species or other harmful plants, or an attempt to bamboozle, distract or overwhelm the US Postal Service and Dept of Homeland Security, or to soften up consumers to receiving and opening unsolicited packages from China, authorities believe that the seed packets may be part of an online "brushing scam".

Given the brush-off

So what is a brushing scam?

It is effectively a way of manipulating ratings and rankings on e-commerce sites.  Ratings and rankings are obviously very important to online retailers. A company or product's visibility and score on third party e-commerce site such as Amazon can make a huge difference to the success or otherwise of a company and its products. A higher rating and ranking can result in significantly more sales. A virtuous circle.

The number of items sold by a company can have significant impact on a company's rating and ranking. Brushing consists of generating fake orders to boost their rating and ranking.

A seller can engage in brushing by paying someone a small amount to place a fake order, or just by using another person's information to place an order themselves. E-commerce platforms monitor their sites for various dodgy practices such as brushing, so they can implement measures to counter them. One of the things the platforms do to confirm whether or not an order (and subsequent rating) is genuine is to confirm whether shipment really took place.  

Not to be outsmarted, the dodgy traders therefore not only place fake orders using real people's details, but follow through on delivering the goods (or more likely a cheap substitute) to those people's home address. The scammer will sometimes then follow up by posting a fake review using those people's details.  It's usually impossible for the person whose details have been used to track down the order/review which took advantage of their identity.

Can it be brushed under the carpet?

E-commerce platforms are wise to the practice and are taking steps to tackle it, but the scammers still play the numbers game to see what they can get away with.  It is a problem not only for scammers who get caught, but also for the e-commerce platforms which are being manipulated in this way if they do not take effective measures to eradicate these practices.