How "brushing" tricksters create online demand for their products: Internet Scambusters #800
"Brushing" sounds like a perfectly innocent if somewhat tedious activity -- but not if you're a Chinese trickster looking to promote sales of certain products.
For them, it's a scam that involves sending unwanted and unpurchased products to unsuspecting consumers in the U.S.
In this week's issue, we'll explain what's behind this trick and its sinister add-on implications if your stolen identity has been used.
Let's get started...
"Brushing" Scam Delivers Unwanted Products
A clever scam called "brushing" is sweeping the U.S. (pardon the pun!), leaving victims perplexed.
It starts with unordered packages arriving in the mail from China or sometimes even from online retailers in the U.S., such as Amazon.
Packages usually have the recipient's correct name and address and, often, several of them will arrive day after day.
It doesn't seem to make sense but the theory behind it is that the manufacturers are artificially boosting sales.
After all, they are paying themselves for their purchases, so the money goes back to them and they are only out the much lower cost of making the product in the first place.
Inflating sales numbers means the product receives a higher ranking on retailer websites, which, in turn, encourages others to buy.
In other cases, the manufacturers contract with agents to do the job for them. In turn, the agents buy name-and-address lists from marketing firms. Then they set up user profiles with the retailers.
They order products from the likes of Amazon and its Chinese equivalent, Alibaba, mail them as gifts to their victims and, because they're the original purchaser, they get to write positive feedback as a "verified purchaser."
In other words, it's a way around the retailers' attempts to remove phony reviews.
And because it's a conspiracy between the maker and the agent, the maker often sends out cheap or defective versions of the supposedly ordered item.
Sometimes, according to latest reports, the packages are even just empty boxes.
It costs the shippers next to nothing to send them to the U.S. because they take advantage of special, low-cost international postage rates available from USPS for some Asian countries.
So, the recipient gets nothing out of it, while the maker gets a glowing review for the real product, often for nothing more than the cost of a cheap postage stamp.
Although brushing has really hit the scam headlines this year, the crime has actually been around for quite a while.
According to the website of Forbes magazine, researchers followed the online activities of more than 4,000 "brushers" and found the crooks were inflating their sales ranking 10 times faster than would happen under normal, honest selling activity.
Although brushing is illegal in China and certainly of dubious legality in the U.S., the researchers found that only a handful of the firms they tracked actually got caught.
"For the most part, if the seller of a product is on the other side of an international line than the buyer, then no rules, regulations, or laws apply," says Forbes. "IP, consumer safety, and postal laws become moot, as the country where the offense originates is beyond the legal reach of the parties seeking retribution.
"Cross-border e-commerce has become the new 'Wild West,' a place where anything goes."
What Can You Do?
The idea of receiving something for nothing might seem appealing. But as we said, there's also a high chance it's defective or the package is empty.
In addition, if you receive one or more of these items, you'll probably worry about keeping and using them.
Like most victims, you'll likely end up just piling them up somewhere, frightened to use them and frightened to throw them away!
You may think of returning them to the retailer but often you'll find there's no order number on the package.
Unfortunately, we can't provide legal advice on your rights. You'd have to speak to an attorney.
But some victims have found that, if packages start arriving via UPS, they can refuse them unopened, either on the doorstep or at the local UPS office.
More worryingly though, you'll also know that your name and address are in the hands of dubious traders who may also have set up online accounts and profiles in your name.
In that case, you'll need to check if accounts have been opened in your name with whichever retailer sent them and arrange for the profile to be removed.
And you'll have to double up on your vigilance in case your identity is being used for other criminal purposes.
So far, retailers do not seem to have been particularly helpful to victims. After all, they've been paid for the item and passed the money, less their commission, to the manufacturer. So, they don't want the items back!
Amazon recently told an Oregon TV station:
"We are investigating inquiries from consumers who have received unsolicited packages as this would violate our policies... We remove sellers in violation of our policies, withhold payments, and work with law enforcement to take appropriate action."
According to the same report, the retailing giant also said recipients were free to keep "brushing" type items or give them away -- but we can't confirm that and, as we said earlier, we can't provide advice on your rights.
Alert of the Week
The U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has warned that scammers are using its name, logo, and other credentials to push fraudulent or non-existent investments.
Letters and emails claim to be from FINRA chief Robert Cook to promote supposed investment opportunities that, in reality, are advance fee scams in which victims are asked to pay upfront to get in on a (fake) once-in-a-lifetime investment.
If you get one of these messages -- or a phone call promoting the same deal -- remember that FINRA doesn't promote or recommend particular investments.
The agency also has its own "scam meter" that investors can use to test out investment offers they receive.
Time to conclude for today -- have a great week!