Dara Arnold, a 26-year-old Gainesville resident, said she was surprised to find a white plastic envelope on her doorstep.
The packaging label had Chinese characters on it and came from an unfamiliar address, Arnold said. Inside, she found a single, plain black beaded bracelet that now lies on her kitchen counter.
After posting an image of her mysterious package on Facebook, hundreds of Gainesville residents responded.
Arnold is one of countless people to receive an unsolicited gift in Chinese packaging. Officials say this is likely the result of “brushing,” a scam in which overseas companies use consumers’ names and addresses for profit. It begins with a gift in the mail.
The gift usually costs nothing for the customer, but senders use the receiver’s name to write fake reviews and boost their company’s online reputation, according to Fortune.
“Brushers,” the people who write the fake reviews, often write reviews for higher-ticket items than the ones actually sent to the customer. The scam’s goal: to beat online algorithms and gain more views with the help of good “customer” ratings.
Jamie Faulkner received a package from China July 24 containing a single disposable paper face mask she hadn’t ordered. Faulkner said she assumed it came from Wish, an online store based in China from which she had previously shopped.
Faulkner reported the parcel to the post office and said she immediately threw it away after taking pictures.
It is unclear as to where the scammers get people’s names, but Arnold said she believes it could come from previously ordering items through Amazon, Ebay, Wish and off-brand online stores.
Though random face masks and bracelets may be harmless, experts say other unwarranted items pose a potential threat: seeds.
Seeds of all shapes, sizes and species are also shipped to the U.S. and showing up in Gainesville residents’ mail, said Stephen Enloe, a specialist in aquatic and invasive plants at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. These packages also come from China in white plastic bags and are sometimes labeled as “jewelry” or “earbuds.”
There have been reports to the U.S. Department of Agriculture from individuals who received suspicious packaged seeds in all states as well as Canada, Enloe said.
In Florida, some of the seeds were identified by botanists as citrus seeds, which are extremely dangerous if exposed to other citrus plants or seeds because they could contribute to widespread citrus greening, a phenomenon known to kill and harm citrus plants and fruit.
Enloe said he believes that the seeds aren’t linked to bioterrorism but instead to the widespread brushing scam across the country. He added that the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is working with the U.S. Department of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services to identify the seeds and determine what to do with them.
FDCAS has received more than 630 reports of suspicious seeds delivered to people’s homes, according to Enloe. Seeds shouldn’t be planted because they may be invasive species, toxic or introduce dangerous pathogens or insects to the environment or people who touch them, Enloe said. Residents who receive these packages shouldn’t open them but instead place the entire package in a sealed bag and call or email FDACS so it can pick up the package.
“This is a big deal, and there are a lot of unknowns,” Enloe said. “It’s 2020. I am urging people that receive them to take this very seriously.”