Have you received mystery packets of seeds?

People around the world have been posted unknown seeds, many of them marked as coming from China.

These are seemingly random packages – sent to a wide range of countries, with the unknown seeds causing alarm among both the recipients and the various governments. Worst-case scenario: the seeds were some kind of bioterror threat. Plant them and who knows what would spring up. Or, more likely: the seeds are part of a brushing scam. Read the full article from the Guardian UK. Individuals in France have received mystery seed packets from China that they did not order. French authorities have advised people not to plant the seeds.

24 August 2020
Two packets of mystery seeds sent from China. Individuals in France have received seed packages from China that they did not order.
The seed packets have also been sent to individuals in the US, Canada, UK and Israel.

In a tweet, the French ministry for agriculture and food revealed the packages had been received by individuals in France in July. It warned that the seeds could carry illnesses not present in France, or be invasive species.

In a statement, the ministry said: “Above all, it is essential not to plant them.”  Individuals who have received seed packets are advised to “place them in a plastic bag, then throw the bag (sealed so it is airtight) in your household rubbish bin so that the seeds are destroyed”.Anyone who has touched the grains should “clean their hands well and disinfect any object that has been in contact with the seeds”.

Mystery seed packets sent to other countries too 

Individuals in the US, Canada, UK and Israel have also received mystery seed packets from China.

It is suspected they have been sent as part of a “brushing” scam. It has hit the headlines after thousands of Americans received unsolicited packets of seeds in the mail, but it is not new. It’s an illicit way for sellers to get reviews for their products.

And it doesn’t mean your account has been hacked. Here’s an example of how it works: let’s say I set myself up as a seller on Amazon, for my product, Kleinman Candles, which cost £2 each.

I then set up a load of fake accounts, and I find random names and addresses either from publicly available information or from a leaked database that’s doing the rounds from a previous data breach. I order Kleinman Candles from my fake accounts and have them delivered to the addresses I have found, with no information about where they have been sent from.

I then leave positive reviews for Kleinman Candles from each fake account – which has genuinely made a purchase.

Glowing reviews

This way my candle shop page gets filled with glowing reviews (sorry), my sales figures give me an algorithmic popularity boost as a credible merchant – and nobody knows that the only person buying and reviewing my candles is myself.

It tends to happen with low-cost products, including cheap electronics. It’s more a case of fake marketing than cyber-crime, but “brushing” and fake reviews are against Amazon’s policies.

Campaign group Which? advises that you inform the platform if sent any unsolicited goods.

It first investigated the practice in 2018, and found that in some cases, the people affected had been victims of data breaches elsewhere, meaning at least some of their personal data was available in unexpected places. “It’s an old fashioned scam – making people believe in something is a way of getting them to buy,” said Prof Alan Woodward, a cyber-security expert at Surrey University.

“Like it or not, we do all look at the reviews, even though we are getting more savvy about it, and if it says it’s from a verified purchaser, we’re less likely to think twice.”

Can you keep it?

According to Citizens’ Advice, if an item is addressed to you, there has been no previous contact with the company, and it arrives out of the blue, then you can keep it.

However anything which arrives by mistake – either delivered to the wrong address, or a duplicate of some goods you have already received – has to go back.

“Brushing” is a type of scam that sees e-commerce sites or individuals – who are not affiliated with official commerce sites such as Amazon, but sometimes use their platform to sell goods separately – sending unsolicited items to fake buyers, using real addresses that belong to someone else. After the items have been sent, the fake buyers are then invited to write positive reviews to artificially boost the seller’s online profile and increase sales. Meanwhile, inhabitants at the real addresses receive surprise packages they did not order.

Sellers can also send products as unsolicited gifts to consumers in the hope that receiving free products will result in them leaving a positive review.